OSLO, Norway– Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia had already had a pretty good weekend here at Holmenkollen. Yesterday, she picked up her first World Cup win of the season in the 10 k pursuit.
But when she exited the shooting range for the last time in today’s 12.5 k mass start and looked up ahead of her, she knew that things were about to get even better. Incredibly, there was not a single woman in front of her heading out onto the final two and a half kilometer loop: Olga Zaitseva of Russia. And Laura Dahlmeier of Germany was exiting the penalty loop to join Kuzmina.
“Just amazing,” was how Kuzmina described the realization that she was more or less guaranteed a second podium.
How incredible was it? With three penalties over the first two stages, Kuzmina had been in the low 20’s at the race’s halfway point. There had been several leaders during the competition: Norwegians Tiril Eckhoff and Tora Berger on the first loop, Zaitseva on the second, Dahlmeier on the third and fourth. Kuzmina had never been in the mix.
Seizing opportunity by the horns, the Slovakian double Olympic gold medalist set to work making her day better yet again. Skiing the second-fastest closing loop of the entire field, she passed Zaitseva and left Dahlmeier in the dust and took a 3.8-second win.
“Today I understand how important it is to make zero on the last shooting,” Kuzmina laughed in a post-race press conference.
Zaitseva and Dahlmeier could not keep their earlier speed and slipped further back in the field, finishing fifth and sixth. Instead it was Teje Gregorin of Slovenia who charged into second place, and Marie Dorin Habert of France who took third.
It was the first regular-season podium for Gregorin, who showed the same determination and finishin speed as she did in a bronze medal performance in the Olympic pursuit last month.
“I didn’t expect so good results this morning because I had a lot of problems with shooting this week,” she said. “Today was much better and I’m very happy to be in the top three.”
And it was also a comeback for Dorin Habert, who ruptured a ligament in her ankle jogging at the first World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, and did not compete again until the Olympics. Her next season won’t be much simpler: Dorin Habert, who came into this season as the top French woman, is pregnant and anticipated missing some to all of the 2014-2015 competition year.
“And now I have a baby on board now so it is a very strange season,” she said of this year. “For the next season, I think I can’t be there in December, and I hope to be there in January, February, March maybe if I can find my level. The priority will be the baby. To race, I will make more seasons after. But next season it will be more [relaxed].”
The World Cup overall title was also decided today. It was a fight between Berger and Kaisa Makarainen of Finland: if either won, they would take home the crystal globe. Otherwise it would depend on the spread between them.
Once Berger lost the lead after the first shooting, her fortunes just kept taking downhill turns. After her first penalty, she was in 17th place but still leading Makarainen, whom she needed to beat my a margin of 10 World Cup points. With a clean second prone stage, Berger was up to seventh, still well ahead of Makarainen.
But then the Norwegian, whose fast and clean standing shooting has been one of the hallmarks of a long and storied career, missed three shots in a windy third stage. That dropped her far back. In the final stage, she missed another shot and could only climb from 19th up to 14th on the last loop. It wasn’t enough to beat Makarainen.
“With how I managed today, it was Kaisa who deserved to win the globe,” Berger told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the competition. “I wanted a bit too much.”
It was the second overall title for Makarainen, who also won the Total Score in 2011. She had a rough start to the race, missing two shots and leaving the penalty loop in 27th. But the Finn said that she did not think it was nerves that had tripped her up.
“It was a really tough race today,” Makarainen said in a press conference. “A lot of pressure before and also during the race. I think I was not the only one with the pressure today.”
Makarainen cleaned the second stage, but then had a single penalty in each standing stage. Nevertheless she was able to climb up through the field, thanks to the fastest course time of the day – something she has made a habit of owning recently.
She said that she did not know how far ahead of Berger she was at almost any point during the race. In the final shooting, she knew Berger was somewhere behind her, but did not feel safe since Berger is capable of shooting so quickly.
Only in the very closing stages of the last loop, when she was up to seventh place, did she realize that it was enough to hold onto the Total Score.
“I had to fight my way back up,” Makarainen said in the press conference. “… Biathlon is really a tough sport, also the mental side. It’s not enough that you are in good physical shape and you can shoot well. In the races, for the top places the mental side is also very important. It’s not so easy to handle. But that’s why we train a lot in the summer time. And I have been in this circuit so many years that I think I have learned something, and I have been in a lot of situations.”
The day was also particularly significant as a number of top athletes are retiring. After competing in the last World Cup races of their careers, Berger and Ann Kristin Flatland – both individual World Cup winners and members of the World Champion relay team in 2013 – asked the Norwegian prime minister for jobs, joking that they could be secretaries of state, according to Aftenposten.
Flatland, who already has one child, finished one spot behind Berger in 15th. She actually let Berger pass her in hopes that the extra World Cup point would allow her to do better in the fight for the Total Score. The two were carried on the shoulders of their coaches as they made a farewell tour of the stadium.
Andrea Henkel, a German biathlete who first won Olympic gold in 2002 and has 22 career wins, is also retiring. After finishing 13th, Henkel and her three teammates in the mass start paused at the finish to savor flutes of champagne, while Henkel wore an improvised crown. Other former teammates such as Kati Wilhelm and Simone Hauswald, who joined her for many a relay in the 2000’s, showed up to help celebrate. German team staff wore short black wigs in Henkel’s signature hairstyle.
Russian star Olga Zaitseva, who led a portion of the mass start today but ended up fifth, had long planned to retire after this season. But she has since decided to keep competing through the 2018 Olympics and told Russian press that she feels like she is in the best shape of her life.
Rosanna Crawford and Zina Kocher finished eighth and 21st for Canada, and Susan Dunklee clocked in at 18th for the United States.
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.