The women’s 7.5-kilometer biathlon World Cup sprint on Saturday in Kontiolahti, Finland, proved once again that the North American biathletes are able to blend themselves in with the better-known Europeans.
Unlike Thursday’s sprint race, today’s mattered more in that the results determined who would participate in Sunday’s pursuit — something that has been difficult in recent years for North Americans. In the words of U.S.’s Hannah Dreissigacker, “Mostly I’m just really happy to have finally broken my ‘pursuit curse’ and qualified for my first World Cup pursuit!!”
Her teammate, Susan Dunklee, who had a single standing miss to finish eighth, 35.7 seconds behind winner Kaisa Mäkäräinen of Finland, led the North American women on Saturday. In an email, Dunklee explained that before she headed out to warm up, she stopped by the stadium for some inspiration at the men’s flower ceremony.
“It was awesome to see Lowell on the podium,” she said of her teammate, who achieved his first World Cup podium in third in the preceding men’s sprint. “He has worked so hard for so long and it finally paid off.”
Dunklee went on to notch her second-best sprint result of the season, and her career.
Mäkäräinen went on to win her second-straight sprint in Kontiolahti in 20:53.6. Despite one prone penalty, the Finn beat Norwegian runner-up Tora Berger by 6.2 seconds. Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic finished 6.7 seconds after Berger in third. Both Berger and Soukalova cleaned.
According to an IBU press release, Mäkäräinen, who hails from nearby Joensuu, is Kontiolahti’s hometown hero. Both she and the men’s sprint winner, Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway, won both sprints there in the last three days.
With one penalty, Mäkäräinen was 17.3 seconds slower than she was in Thursday’s race on the same course.
Saturday’s conditions were not the easiest. According to Dunklee, the course’s soft-and-sugary snow required extra energy to “fully accelerate over the tops of hills and around the corners,” which she explained she did not have.
However, shooting went much better for Dunklee. In standing, she focused on “painting” (holding on the target) for a little longer before pulling the trigger. “With three U.S. women qualified for tomorrow’s pursuit, it will certainly be an exciting race, and we all believe we can move up,” she said, referring to Dreissigacker, who placed 41st (0+2) 1:51.4 back from Mäkäräinen, and Sara Studebaker in 58th (1+1), 2:30.3 behind.
“I’m really psyched for tomorrow’s race,” Dreissigacker wrote. “My goal is to go out there and relax and have fun and move up into the points.”
In bib 63 of nearly 90 finishers, Dreissigacker found it helpful that she was able to ski with people for most of Saturday’s sprint. Although she missed her first two standing shots, and panicked for a moment about needing to hit the rest of them — which she admits is not the right thing to think — she did manage to pull herself together and hit them, despite her legs “starting to shake.”
As for the Canadians, Rosanna Crawford led the team in 16th. She missed one standing and clocked in 54 seconds back from Mäkäräinen.
“It was another tough race today!” Crawford wrote.
She found the course “pretty tough” and made even harder because the organizers trucked in a bunch of snow from a “saved” pile.
She had a positive experience on the shooting range, which she described as “calm,” and was able to hit all of her prone targets, which she explained hadn’t happened in a while.
“I’m still searching for that top 10! Tomorrow will be a tight pursuit and good shooting will be key.”
Despite three misses (2+1), Canada’s Zina Kocher made the pursuit in 54th (+2:16), as did her teammate Megan Heinicke in 60th, who missed one shot on both stages to finish 2:32.7 behind the winner.
American Annelies Cook missed the top 60 in 76th (1+3).
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.