Peaking for the Olympics is a tricky thing. Just ask the scores of athletes who underperformed on the world’s biggest stage, from Norwegian skiers and biathletes to U.S. skier Kikkan Randall to most of the Russian team.
The Swedish men’s biathlon team was definitely in that group. Based on the previous World Championships, they came in with high expectations: in 2012 Björn Ferry, Fredrik Lindström, and Carl Johan Bergman won four medals at World Championships. In 2013, Lindström took bronze in the 20 k individual, while he and Ferry were frequent visitors to the top ten.
But the team left Sochi without a single medal of any color.
“I did not get to that dream race I hoped for and believed [was possible],” Ferry wrote on his blog after the Olympics. “With some distance to it all, I see I performed about as expected. Shot 89% accuracy, a bit over my cut. Had the top ten in course time two of the races… I knew that the chances of medals was small, but damn, I am disappointed. I was expecting more.”
In Pokljuka, Slovenia, this weekend, it became apparent that maybe Ferry just mis-timed his peak, epically. In three World Cup races, Ferry has stood on the podium every time, thanks to his usual good shooting and some speedier skiing than he is used to.
Case in point: in beating France’s Martin Fourcade, the World Cup leader and gold medalist from Sochi, in today’s 15 k mass start, Ferry not only stole 13 seconds from his fast shooting on the range – both men cleaned all 20 targets – but also put half a second into Fourcade over the course of the race on the trails.
Neither of those things were what ultimately netted Ferry the victory, however. The Lanky Swede simply played smart tactics and didn’t let himself get bullied by Fourcade, who usually calls the shots in the lead pack on the World Cup circuit.
A pack of five men were together on the fourth of five laps, and pushed the pace in an effort to hold their lead.
“Everything really picked up in the fourth lap,” said American Tim Burke, who was part of the breakaway. ” Up until that point, I felt like the pace was not so high. On the fourth lap, I think there were about five of us who started to put a little distance on the others. At that point our group just wanted to create as much of a cushion as possible before the last lap.”
The pace came at a cost as Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway and Daniel Boehm of German each missed one shot and Burke missed two. That set up the battle between Ferry and Fourcade.
“It was a gruesome final lap—I thought Fourcade would come in the finish,” Ferry told Sweden’s TV4.
Leaving the range for the final time, Ferry had a lead of one second on the Frenchman, who soon passed him. Fourcade slowed the pace, allowing Evgeny Ustyugov of Russia, who had also cleaned through all four stages, to hook on to the back. Fourcade seemed to be setting up for a sprint on the course’s downhill finish.
But then he made Ferry lead. The Swede set a fast pace, and then Fourcade passed him back on one of the course’s final small, rolling uphills.
“You have to put ten meters on him!” Fourcade’s coaches shouted from the side of the trail.
Fourcade couldn’t do it, though. Ustyugov was quickly dropped, but Ferry hung tight. And then, on one of the final downhill corners, the Swede put in a textbook pass and sprinted past Fourcade as the trail flattened out.
Fourcade initially tried to follow, and then basically gave up. Ferry had a lead of five seconds by the time he entered the finishing lanes a few hundred meters later. Fourcade actually began celebrating earlier than the Swede, waving to the crowd as he crossed the line in second.
“I’m completely exhausted,” said a dissatisfied Fourcade. “I can beat Ferry 99 times out of a hundred, but it’s the end of the season and my legs and my head could not today.”
For Ferry, the glory was all his in a sort of redemption from the Olympics. Even if the timing was bad, he had turned in the “magnificent races” that he wrote on his blog that he was seeking in the final weekends of the year – and the final races of his career, as both he and teammate Bergman are set to retire at the end of the season.
“It was perfect,” Ferry told Sweden’s TV4 after the race.
The two men were joking around during and after the flower ceremony, and Fourcade had even helped Ferry out earlier in the race. Fourcade broke the Swede’s broke a pole on the first loop, so Fourcade extended his own pole out behind him for Ferry to grab on to, and pulled him up the hill.
“I broke his stick, but it was an accident so I tried to help him to get a good position,” Fourcade told German television station ZDF. “Even though we are competitors, we are after all buddies. I know he had done the same for me.”
Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen and Johannes Thingnes Bø finished fourth and fifth, and enjoyed the flower ceremony together even if they did not stand on the podium: when Bø approached to receive his award, he reached over knocked Svendsen’s glasses into the snow, before the pair devolved into laughter.
Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France placed sixth and Tim Burke of the United States seventh after skiing in the lead pack of four until the final standing stage, where he missed two shots.
“I got thrown off in the last shooting when I missed my first shot,” Burke said. “It felt like a good shot to me so I was really surprised when it did not go down. After that, I shot too defensively and ended up with another penalty. Despite the last stage, I was happy with me effort… It felt great to be back up near the top fighting for a podium. I am very encouraged with how my body reacted to three tough races in four days. I hope the upward trend continues for the next two weeks!”
Teammate Lowell Bailey placed 20th and Brendan Green finished 21st for Canada with four and three penalties, respectively.
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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.