Something about the medals the top women received on Thursday in their first individual IBU World Cup of the season fascinated Darya Domracheva. Standing atop the podium after the 15-kilometer race in Östersund, Sweden, she spoke excitedly about it to Finnish runner-up Kaisa Mäkäräinen, who smiled and agreed — yeah, it was pretty neat.
Domracheva was borderline chatty during the flower ceremony, smily and upbeat after another World Cup victory — her 20th, according to an IBU press release.
The 28-year-old Belarusian biathlete, who won three Olympic golds in Sochi, is often unstoppable. Once she gets ahead in a race, she’s often hard to match. And on Thursday, with her long, flowing pony tail and snowflake earrings, Domracheva kind of seemed flawless — except for when she missed two targets and tripped over a rock on the last loop.
“I crashed on the last loop, which was scary but most importantly, a rock ruined my ski,” she told the IBU afterward. “I just hope that my servicemen can repair it.”
Rock or not, she was well on her way to the win and ended up topping Mäkäräinen by 27.9 seconds in 46:43.6. Mäkäräinen, in second throughout the five-loop race, started four minutes ahead of Domracheva in bib 13 (of 96), and finished with first. The whole time, however, she knew she’d have to ski like crazy and be perfect on the range to beat Domracheva.
Mäkäräinen had two penalties as well, one on each of the second and third bouts, and Domracheva shot clean through the first two stages before missing one her third and fourth time in the range.
“It was my mistake; I was leaving the shooting range a bit earlier than I should have!” she said. “Still it was a good shooting result for me.”
Conditions on Thursday were better than what the men experienced in the 20 k individual the day before. High, variable winds on Wednesday evening calmed to a gentle breeze for the women’s race. But with well-above-freezing temperatures, the snow was still chewed up and slow.
“It was really tough and deep snow around the tracks; you never had a chance to rest,” Mäkäräinen said. “In downhills, you had to be careful not to fall down. I got lucky because a Russian girl fell in front of me and somehow I managed to get around her without a fall.”
After Domracheva cleaned the first prone, Mäkäräinen trailed by 6.3 seconds in third. From that point on, the two remained relatively close, with Domracheva posting the fastest-overall course time by 15 seconds over Mäkäräinen in second. Domracheva skied the third-fastest last loop because of her crash, behind Mäkäräinen and Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand, an early leader in bib 8.
The initial top finisher, Hildebrand ended up sixth overall with two penalties, 2:25.7 behind Domracheva. Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko shot perfectly for third, finishing 10.2 seconds behind Mäkäräinen with the eighth-fastest course time. Semerenko was one of three women in the field to notch 20-for-20 shooting.
“I seemed to have lost my shooting touch in our last training camp but somehow I found it today!” Semerenko told the IBU after notching her sixth-career podium.
Semerenko bumped another Belarusian, Nadezhda Skardino, to fourth (+2:04.3) after Skardino — who had one penalty — took the lead at the finish from Hildebrand. (Mäkäräinen finished shortly after to claim the top position before Domracheva.)
Veronica Vitkova of the Czech Republic was the third fastest on course to overcome three penalties and place fifth (+2:09.1). After Hildebrand, Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff was seventh, Russia’s Ekaterina Glazyrina eighth, Sweden’s Elisabeth Högberg achieved her first-ever top 10 in ninth, and France’s Sophie Boilley was 10th.
Olga Podchufarova of Russia took 11th, about 19 seconds ahead of Canada’s Megan Heinicke, who recorded a career-best 12th with a single miss on the second stage (+3:31).
Heinicke started 62nd and initially finished 11th, only to be bumped one place by Glazyrina.
While Domracheva said she was taking it race by race and trying not to look too far ahead, Semerenko dedicated her third-place finish to her sister, Vita, who tried to recover from back surgery this summer and fall. Last week, Ukrainian Biathlon Federation President Vladimir Bryzhnak announced that she would miss the entire season because of a herniated intervertebral disc.
“This was a hard competition today. It is hard without my sister here now,” Valj Semerenko told the IBU. “I now have to work for two people. Out on the tracks, I felt her support; I was competing for both of us.”
Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic in 62nd slipped out of contention with four penalties in the first prone and an additional miss on each of the second and last stages for six total. Germany’s Miriam Gössner placed 68th with seven penalties after suffering a concussion in a rollerski crash in the offseason.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.