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SOCHI, Russia – Sometimes, lightning does strike the same place twice.
When Anastasiya Kuzmina won the Olympic sprint in Vancouver in 2010, it was the first win of her career at the international level, and came as quite the surprise to the biathlon community.
“Vancouver was the first gold medal in my life, and it was just a new emotion of my first Olympic games,” Kuzmina said in a press conference today.
Coming into today’s 7.5 k sprint at the next Olympics, few predicted that Kuzmina would be able to defend her title. She hadn’t won a World Cup race in over a year, and in fact had only three victories since her last Olympics.
But when Kuzmina, starting in bib 33, crossed the line, she put nearly 30 second into Anais Bescond of France, who was leading at the time. As the rest of the field came through one by one, nobody was able to match Kuzmina’s time, and she ended up a gold medalist by 19.9 seconds over Olga Vilukhina of Russia.
“Today was just an amazing day for me,” Kuzmina said. “Here it was my second Olympic Games and it was a long way to this gold medal. It’s not the same. It was hard work for four years and just unbelievable…. Today is unbelievable. It is my favorite race.”
Kuzmina shot clean, as did Vilukhina, third-place Vita Semerenko of Ukraine, and fourth-place Karin Oberhofer of Italy. But among those athletes, Kuzmina’s skiing was in a league of its own. She had the fourth-fastest course time of the day, which paired with her the eighth-fastest shooting was an unbeatable combination.
When FasterSkier interviewed Kuzmina in November, she said that she had “no expectations” about whether she would be able to defend her medal. And her skiing has clearly come around: her lone podium of the season, at the opening race in Östersund, Sweden, came thanks to her shooting. Her skiing was only ranked 13th.
The victory today had special significance to Kuzmina, who is originally from Russia. On one hand, it was revenge for her brother, Anton Shipulin, who finished fourth in yesterday’s men’s sprint. Just 0.7 seconds from a bronze medal, Shipulin was also in a position to win until he missed a shot in his final shooting stage; the penalty loop gave him far more time than the 6.4 seconds he ultimately finished behind Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway.
However, Shipulin is still in a good position for tomorrow’s pursuit, making it possible that both siblings will win medals, and possibly even double gold, in the same Olympics.
“This victory was for him, too,” Kuzmina said. “I hope it inspires him for the pursuit. He can win.”
Kuzmina herself was thrilled to be back on what she still considers home turf, and also dedicated her performance to Maxim Vylegzhanin, a Russian skier who finished fourth in today’s 30 k skiathlon after being debatably obstructed by Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
“This victory in my homeland is a big thing,” she said. “Yes, I am a Slovakian passport holder, but here I am at home. This atmosphere is so comfortable it is so homey. I am so happy to see my friends and family… they really understand what I was going through, what this means to me.”
Not all Russians, though, seemed to support her. Reactions were mixed as she skied through the finishing straight.
After all, biathlon is a signature sport in Russia, and Kuzmina did take gold away from a Russian who still competes for Russia. However, Vilukhina did still earn the first Russian medal of the Games, taking some of the pressure off the team.
Like Kuzmina, Vilukhina, had her best performance in almost a year: she was second in the final World Cup pursuit in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, last season.
“Until the very last moment you did not know anything about whether you would stay in second place,” Vilukhina said. “I was only able to relax when I went to the flower ceremony.”
Vilukhina is part of the same training group as Ekaterina Iourieva and Irina Starykh, who have tested positive for a banned substance presumed to be the blood doping drug recombinant erythropoietin, and are serving provisional suspensions from competition. The coach of this training group, Vladimir Korolkevich, has ties to past doping scandals.
Until this season, Vilukhina had been part of the training group of Wolfgang Pichler, a German hired in part to clean up the Russian team and who is an outspoken opponent of doping.
“I would like to thank [Pichler], who I had the honor to work with my previous season,” Vilukhina said.
But she made it clear that the silver medal – which brings her back to her form 2012, when she won bronze in the pursuit at World Championships – had something to do with switching to Korolkevich’s supervision.
“Today’s silver speaks for itself,” Vilukhina said. “We had a competent training plan, which developed me well as an athlete.”
Saying that she had been dreaming of this moment since she was ten years old – Vilukhina is a first-time Olympian – she thanked all of her supporters throughout Russia.
“I think in my home, I’m more happy because today the entire city got together today to watch the Games,” she said. They made a screen and watched the sprint with an overhead projector, so I’d like to thank everybody that was supporting me sincerely. Today’s silver medal makes me really happy but the Olympics aren’t over yet, and I will only be able to relax on February 23.
Third-place Semerenko won the first Ukrainian medal of the Olympics, and was rewarded with a three-bedroom apartment courtesy of the President of Ukraine. All Ukrainian athletes who win medals will receive an apartment.
“This is just my first sprint. This is just the beginning of me winning many apartments,” Semerenko laughed.
-Alex Matthews 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.