OSLO, Norway– For Darya Domracheva of Belarus, things could not have started out better in today’s 10 k pursuit. The winner of Thursday’s World Cup sprint here at Holmenkollen, Domracheva kicked things off by cleaning all ten of her prone stages and grew her lead to more than 45 seconds at one point.
But when she hit the first standing stage, Domracheva’s luck turned completely. She missed the last three targets of that stage, and came out of the penalty loop just before Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia, who had a penalty of her own.
It was out of character for Domracheva, who now has seven top-five finishes in the last ten races.
“I was surprised when I saw Darya really close,” Kuzmina said in a press conference. “I was thinking how many mistakes she made.”
Then in the final standing stage, Domracheva incredibly repeated her earlier mistake, missing another three shots and dropping to sixth place.
Beginning to shoot on the mat next to her, Kuzmina put her head down and cleaned.
“On the last shooting, I was thinking, just, concentrate just on my targets,” Kuzmina said. “Just make what you can. And then I heard her three booms. I understand that she made a mistake, and I understand that I have a chance.”
By the time Domracheva finished her penalty loops, she was more than a minute behind Kuzmina. And four more racers had come in between them: Olga Vilukhina of Russia and Tora Berger of Norway, who had cleaned in the stage and returned to the podium positions they had held earlier in the race; Susan Dunklee of the United States, who had a penalty; and Andrea Henkel of Germany, who had started in 31st but cleaned every single one of her targets to move up to sixth.
For Kuzmina, a 48-second lead meant that she could treat the final two kilometers of skiing as a victory lap. By the time she came into the stadium, she was pumping her fists in the air, smiling at the crowd, and taking a bow as she skated towards the finish line.
It was the first victory of the World Cup season for Kuzmina, who won gold in the Olympic sprint in Sochi.
“My form is looking like it’s coming back,” she said. “Maybe it’s the second peak in the season. I’m really happy because it’s just the second podium in the World Cup this season. I was a little bit sickness after Olympic Games, but maybe it was actually rest for me and now I am again here at the top and I am really happy.”
While Kuzmina’s huge win – still 41 seconds after all of her celebrating was complete – was a big story, arguably the most interesting races were happening behind her.
Berger had started in second place, before missing one shot in each prone and two in the first standing. But she cleaned her final standing stage and then hunted down Vilukhina on the trails to land back in second place.
“It was not so good shooting today,” she said in the press conference. “I am not satisfied. I was very satisfied about the shooting in the sprint. I don’t know, but I didn’t do what I should do, but on the last standing I was back in business. So I hope I will do it better tomorrow.”
Vilukhina, the Olympic silver medalist behind Kuzmina in the sprint, said that she was plenty satisfied with third place. In fact, it was a good birthday present: she turned 26 years old today.
“It’s cool, what happened on my birthday to win a place on the podium,” she told the Russian Biathlon Union’s news service, according to a translation. “I am not upset that it didn’t stay in second place today. I was given second place at the Olympics – so that today I am happy with bronze. I tried, I suffered … Now I want to open my phone and see how many congratulations I have. Today was a lot of missed calls.”
Dunklee left the penalty loop in fourth place, within sight of Berger and Vilukhina, but was unable to catch either one. She also got passed by Domracheva and Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, who had already moved from 23rd up to eighth after the final stage and continued to roll on the last loop. The trio passed Henkel along the way.
“That last loop, I wish I had a bit more fight,” said Dunklee, who ended up sixth. “I really believe that I can ski with Darya and Kaisa. I just didn’t have it today. I didn’t lose too much time to them, but it certainly wasn’t what I had hoped for.”
Makarainen had powerful motivation: she came into the weekend leading the overall World Cup score, having swept all three races in Kontiolahti, Finland, last week. But after 23rd place in the sprint, Berger was inching closer to taking the title away.
“I want to fight for the Total Score,” Berger said in today’s press conference. “That’s most important for me.”
But it’s important for Makarainen, too. So she desperately had to shoot her way to the top, to prevent Berger from taking too many more points in the pursuit race. Things didn’t start off well, when she crashed on the first loop.
“Luckily there was a safety net there so that I did not dive over [the edge], but I have yellow and blue knees and had terrible pain in the hands of the first two rounds today,” Makarainen told Norway’s NRK broadcaster.
But with the third-fastest ski time of the day and just two penalties, Makarainen was able to outsprint Domracheva for fourth place.
“She’s a climber and she’s extremely strong, but I don’t think it’s that much different than the Kaisa we’ve seen in other years when she has been strong,” Dunklee said of Makarainen’s recent dominance. “She’s just coming on strong at the end of the season. I didn’t see her the rest of the race, I just saw her on that last loop. And she was determined to get to the finish line before me, that’s for sure!”
Fourth place allowed Makarainen to retain the yellow bib, but by just ten points over Berger. The Total Score will come down to Sunday’s mass start. If either woman wins the race, they will win the Total Score; otherwise, it will depend on how close together they finish, and how high they place, as gaps between point allocations change from the top of the field to the bottom.
“It will be a hard fight,” Makarainen said. “Everyone is pretty tired at the end of the season and it is at times difficult conditions here. It is very exciting.”
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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.