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SOCHI, Russia – After just ten minutes of racing at the Laura biathlon stadium, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Darya Domracheva or Belarus would win the women’s 12.5 k mass start.
Domracheva has already won two gold medals in this Olympics both in shows of solid dominance – the 10 k pursuit by 37 seconds, and the 15 k individual by a whopping minute and 15 seconds. Domracheva was in the lead pack, skiing fast, and shooting well.
The only hiccup came in the final shooting bout of the four-stage race. Domracheva, leading by about 20 seconds, missed a shot and headed to the penalty loop. But her nearest competitor, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, also missed. So Domracheva held on to the advantage she had built up by skiing the fastest split times on each of the three middle laps.
“She is amazing,” said Tiril Eckhoff of Norway. “She skis like a dancer. She skis so good and I think she really deserves these three golds. She has been really amazing here.”
“I thought she was going to win today,” agreed Soukalova. “She was so strong in the last races that I didn’t believe that anybody would be faster than her. I didn’t race with her today. I thought it would be better to race just with myself and with nobody more.”
Domracheva coasted across the finish line in 35:25.6, first swinging her poles over her head like rodeo lassos and then by pumping her fists in the air.
“I am really thankful to this great supportive atmosphere,” Domracheva said. “I heard Dasha, Dasha, all over the track. Here in Sochi without this support, it would be much much more difficult to achieve this result.”
The gold tied Domracheva with Kati Wilhelm of Germany for the most gold medals of any female biathlete. But Domracheva made history as the first to do it in a single Olympics – no other woman has achieved the feat, and only Ole Einar Bjørndalen in the men’s field. It also makes her the winningest Belorussian Olympian of all time.
The country’s president bestowed upon her the status of Hero of Belarus, which flabbergasted the 27-year-old biathlete. She is only the 11th person to receive the honor.
Behind Domracheva, Soukalova also skied alone, despite her one penalty. The 24-year-old, who burst onto the scene last season, won her first Olympic medal – and upped the tally to three for the small Czech team over the course of the biathlon races so far at the Games.
Fourth in both the sprint and the pursuit, the silver medal was redemption for Soukalova, who was a medal favorite coming into the Games although she insisted that she hadn’t thought she would be able to make the podium.
“I didn’t feel that I would be strong today before the races,” Soukalova said. “I was feeling to be exhausted because the conditions from the last two races were really hard. I didn’t believe I would be able to be on the podium here after the two times fourth position. I think this result, it’s the best motivation for me… All the races were so close, but happiness was missing. But today, I think I was finding it.”
The most interesting race of the day was for bronze. Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle of Germany – a recent convert to biathlon after winning gold in the team sprint at the 2010 Olympics – had shot a perfect clean race and left the range in third place after the final stage.
To hit 20 out of 20 is almost inconceivable, considering that Sachenbacher-Stehle had only picked up a rifle two years ago and made her World Cup debut partway through last season. But once she was in the hunt, she was sure to be a factor. At 33 years old and in her fifth Olympics, Sachenbacher-Stehle had experience and years of training under her belt.
Five seconds behind her was Tiril Eckhoff of Norway, who had missed a shot in the second stage and clawed her way back to the leaders. Ten years younger than her German rival, Eckhoff is one of the fastest and most aggressive skiers on the World Cup, and used her youthful optimism to chase after the veteran.
“I was actually thinking, I just have to stand up on the [turn],” Eckhoff said of her final loop of skiing. “I looked at Tora [Berger] and she fell down on the first loop. Tora is a really good downhill skier. So I was like, okay, I just have to stand on this curve and after that I just have to go. I knew that my last loop is pretty good and so I would have a good chance.”
By the time the pair came into the stadium, Eckhoff had skied the fastest closing-loop time and was in the lead. Sachenbacher tried to pass as they flew through the stadium in one direction, before climbing a short hill and shooting back across toward the finish. But Eckhoff was determined to end up on the podium and sprinted away, never quite letting Sachenbacher-Stehle draw even.
“I hoped for me that I could do it for the medal on the finish line,” Sachenbacher-Stehle said. “But I have not the high speed in the end. So it’s the unlucky fourth place, but I’m very happy with my race and even if it’s no medal. That’s life. Someone has to be fourth, and now I’m the fourth.”
The bronze medal was a godsend for Norway, which has been having a rough medal of the Olympics. Besides the woes of its cross country ski team, Berger – who won the overall World Cup last season as well as two individual golds and two individual silvers at World Championships – has been able to capture just one medal. Stars Emil Hegle Svendsen and Tarjei Bø have done no better, leaving Ole Einar Bjørndalen’s one gold to lead the team.
After a devastating crash early in the race that dropped her far off the back of the pack, Berger struggled to 15th place with two penalties.
It was a dream come true for Eckhoff, and tied the best result of her career. She finished third in the pursuit in Annency, France, earlier this season, and nearly snagged another podium in Antholz, Italy, but Berger caught her right at the finish and took the honor for herself.
Being on the podium today was much sweeter.
“I think it’s awesome,” Eckhoff said. “When Tora beat me, I was like, man, it’s impossible. So it’s good to just get the podium today.”
While the day ended up magical, it didn’t start out so well for Eckhoff.
“I was switching hotels because I was feeling a bit ill,” she laughed in the press conference. “Today I ate a burger. I was thinking, okay, this will be a nice day. And it was!”
Teja Gregorin of Slovenia, the bronze medalist in the pursuit, finished fifth, and young Polish star Monika Hojnisz sixth, both also with clean shooting.
—Nat Herz contributed reporting
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.