It might have been windy in Pokljuka, Slovenia, today, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a great day to start on biathlon’s World Cup circuit.
In fact, it was a great day to have your first World Cup race – just ask Daria Virolaynen of Russia, who shot clean despite the wind to finish second in the 7.5 k sprint, her very first competition ever.
“The most important international competitions were for me at the University Games, and of course the Open European Championships,” Virolaynen, still in a daze, said of her previous racing. “I am happy about my success today and hope my good results to continue… Maybe I was just lucky today, obviously the stars helped me: I didn’t have any wind at all while standing shooting.”
She finished just nine seconds behind Katharina Innerhofer of Austria, who also shot clean to take not only her first victory – the 23-year-old’s previous best was 22nd place earlier this season – but the first win for an Austrian woman in at least two decades.
“That I would be on top of the podium, I guess nobody has expected this,” Innerhofer said in a press conference. “I am simply overjoyed!”
“Today was a day where anything could happen in terms of results because of the snow conditions and the wind,” Canada’s Zina Kocher said of the results that left many in the biathlon community perplexed, and many of the pre-race favorites very far from the top.
Kaisa Makarainen of Finland placed fourth, the closest thing to a favorite in the top five. For instance, Tora Berger of Norway finished sixth, Marie Dorin Habert of France 18th, Olympic sprint champ Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia 27th, and triple gold medalist Darya Domracheva of Belarus 28th.
“It was pretty windy today and made for some strange results,” teammate Rosanna Crawford agreed. “I don’t know if I have ever seen the top 60 go to almost +3min at a regular World Cup, for men and women.”
Indeed, maybe it was a better day to be a newbie. Emma Lunder of Canada made her World Cup debut and like the podium finishers, used excellent shooting to secure a result far better than she was expecting. With a single penalty, Lunder placed 30th.
“I felt fantastic skiing,” Lunder wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “They’d salted the course in a few places that were really slushy yesterday, so the conditions were definitely better. And being one of the last starters had it’s advantages I would say, because the sun went down and the course seemed to ice up in some places, getting faster as my race went on.”
A several-time World Junior Championships and Open European Championships competitor, Lunder started off the season with a hand injury that she had to recover. She competed in IBU Cup and German Cup races this winter, and learned two weeks ago that she would have a World Cup spot since team regular Megan Imrie was going back to Canada after the Olympics.
That led to enthusiasm and a lot of new experiences in Pokljuka for the last few days.
“The very first day when we arrived in our hotel I was bouncing around, and not able to believe my eyes, like oh there’s Martin Fourcade getting some salad, or oh there’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen hanging out in the lobby!” Lunder wrote.
Initially nervous in the first training on the range, Lunder managed her nerves on race day and was able to focus on her competition, leading to some of the best shooting in the field.
“I’ve been enjoying that atmosphere in Pokljuka so much,” Lunder wrote. “It’s definitely not a fan-crazy venue like Oberhof, but coming from IBU Cup the amount of spectators is huge to me… after I got my initial set of nerves out of the way, I’ve felt great. It also helps that the other Canadian girls have so much experience, and they’ve been super helpful, not only showing me the ropes, and how to get around the venue, but introducing me to other World Cup athletes and really making me feel like a part of the team.”
Four Women in the Pursuit
While Lunder’s result was particularly exciting since she is so new to the circuit, all four Canadian women had strong days. Rosanna Crawford led the way in 17th place, rebounding from an Olympics where her final individual competition produced a 67th-place result in the 15 k (“I won’t bore you with details, but #disaster #embarrassed” Crawford tweeted at the time).
“I was pretty disappointed after the Olympics,” Crawford told FasterSkier. “Having shot way below my average in two of the races, I didn’t meet any of the goals I had set for the games and that was something I had to process after leaving Sochi… Going into today’s race I was pretty bummed about being sick and really had set low expectations for skiing today. But things went a lot better than expected and skiing felt right where it should!”
Teammate Zina Kocher also came back from a frustrating Olympics, missing four shots but skiing the fourth-fastest course time to place 23rd.
“I was super relaxed today, really had no idea how the day might unfold,” Kocher wrote. “It was incredibly gusty in the range, and I had no idea how my skiing was going to feel, my legs still felt a bit heavy and tired!”
Despite the fact that it was her best result of the season, Kocher was left a bit wistful that she couldn’t hit a few more shots.
“I suppose it feels good, though with 3rd fastest ski time, one day I would like to put both skiing and shooting together!” he wrote. “That’s biathlon.”
Megan Heinicke missed three shots and placed 43rd, meaning that the entire Canadian women’s team will be competing in the pursuit on Saturday.
Recovery from Sochi
The athletes appreciated that Pokljuka provides a completely different atmosphere than they had at the Olympics.
“I tried to look at the Games as just another race, but that’s kinda hard when you had GIANT rings looming over the Biathlon range,” Crawford wrote.
After the Olympics, the team splintered to go on personal vacations and mentally and physically recover. Crawford, for instance, headed to Dobiacco, Italy, with boyfriend Brendan Green, who finished 21st in the men’s sprint today.
“We had some great skiing, sunshine and pizza!” Crawford said. “It was so nice to just be the two of us and really decompress after the Olympics.”
Lunder, who did not compete at the Olympics, nevertheless joined boyfriend Nathan Smith on his own post-Games recovery training camp in Obertilliach, Austria.
Kocher, meanwhile, went to St. Anton, Austria, and distanced herself from biathlon for a week.
“I trained ‘cross country skiing’ only twice – two classic sessions, and the rest of the time I was alpine skiing and ski touring,” Kocher wrote. “Skiing piste, off piste and even powder, eating good food and enjoying a glass of wine, and spending time with my ‘2nd’ family were my prime focus.”
Neither expected to feel good in today’s race, and Kocher was surprised that she had a strong ski time, saying, “I really did not think I was going to last 7.5km!”
But placing all four women in the pursuit raised spirits and seemed to boost the team.
“What a day for our team in general,” Kocher wrote. “Emma Lunder’s World Cup debut finishing 30th, and all 4 in the top 43, is really a great day for our women’s team.”
Crawford appreciated getting to mentor some younger competitors, which made the regular World Cup grind seem a little more fresh and exciting.
“It’s great to share your experiences with them and see how excited they are to be here,” she wrote of Lunder and Macx Davies. “It really helps bring some life to the team! Emma really impressed us all with great shooting and fast skiing, to place in the top 30 in your first race is fantastic! It’s really good to see for Biathlon in Canada how much stronger our younger athletes are than say when I was their age.”
And for Lunder, being part of a strong team meant even more than just having a good result herself.
“I’ve completely exceeded any expectations I had going into these races… I mean I was going to be pumped just to make the pursuit!” she wrote. “So to have a starting position right in the middle of the pack is awesome. And it’s great to have all four of our women in the top 43, I’m so stoked to be a part of it!”
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.