OSLO, Norway– Usually, you want to end a racing season on a good note – preferably with sunshine and nice snow.
That was not in the cards at Holmenkollen today, when biathletes woke up to heavy fog for the last World Cup sprint of the season. The fog cleared somewhat for the women’s race and disappeared completely by the time the men hit the course, but it wasn’t a good omen.
The ski trails, too, were less than welcoming. Warm temperatures left them slushy and deep in some places, and icy in others. The corners going into and out of the shooting range, even, were dicey. A number of athletes fell on uphills and downhills alike, and at least one broke the stock of his rifle.
And then there was the range. While a few skiers were able to clean, there were a lot of penalties, including from several top competitors who shot abominably. Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, for example, is the overall World Cup leader. She picked up four penalties, as did Olympic bronze medalist Tiril Eckhoff of Norway, 2012 World Championships silver medalist Tim Burke of the U.S., and 2010 Olympic gold medalist Evgeniy Ustyugov of Russia.
“I think today we got all the things together, windy and foggy and really soft snow,” Darya Domracheva of Belarus said in a press conference. “It was a tough race. On the track, in some places a few girls fell down. It was difficult today. I think the IBU organizers made it especially for spectators today, to get more extreme biathlon.”
Domracheva prevailed in the women’s 7.5 k sprint, collecting a penalty but still taking the win by ten seconds over Tora Berger of Norway.
Berger has not had the season she was expecting – last year she ran away with the World Cup total score – and is retiring after this weekend of racing. She cleaned all ten targets, and said that finally, at the end of the season, her form seems to be coming around.
“It’s really good today, for me it was really good shooting,” she said. “The first time all season was last week in the sprint that I shot zero. Now I have one more. This was really fun to do such a good race today on such difficult conditions.”
Both women are trying to steal the Total Score from Makarainen. With two races remaining, it seems possible. Saturday is a pursuit based on the sprint results, and starting in positions one and two, they will have a huge advantage over the Finn, who will start in 23rd. But both said they were trying not to think about the crystal globe.
“I feel a little tired at the end of the season,” Domracheva admitted. “I try to have fun and not think about the points and the World Cup. I just want to enjoy these races and the end of the season.”
In the men’s 10 k sprint, World Cup leader Martin Fourcade didn’t falter as much as Makarainen, but he did pick up two penalties and finish 11th. Luckily for him, he already has the Total Score locked up.
Instead, it was Jakov Fak of Slovenia who made his return to the top for the first time since last season.
“I think the wind was the main problem, but I managed to shoot [almost] clean, and this was a big advantage for me,” Fak said.
An early starter, he held the lead for a long time until Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia started in bib 69. When Garanichev went clean through both shooting bouts, there began to be questions of whether he would take the win from Fak. But despite receiving splits and making a desperate lunge at the line, he finished just half a second from the win and Fak went home with the victory.
“I was giving an interview and was watching on the screen,” Fak said of when he realized he had won. “I saw on the last uphill that [Garanichev] was behind, so I was confident.”
Björn Ferry of Sweden, who has been on fire the last few weeks, placed third. A former Olympic champion like Berger, he will also retire at the end of the weekend.
“I don’t know,” he said of his recent string of results (which unfortunately began after the Olympics). “I’m surprised after every race but now I have five podiums after seven races. It cannot only be luck. I thought with the fog and deep snow this would not be my day. But zero-zero, I am here again, it is a great feeling.”
As for Fak, he, too, wished he could have won earlier in the season, but was still going home pleased.
“I’m very sad that it’s almost the end of the season,” he said. “It was not such a great season for me. Still today I beat Björn Ferry and I’m very happy.”
Racing continues on Saturday with pursuit competition, and then mass starts will finish off the season on Sunday.
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.