After Martin Fourcade of France opened the day of competition in Östersund, Sweden, by winning the men’s sprint, it looked like the biathlon World Cup was going to pick up right where it left off.
The most successful woman of the 2014 Olympics, Darya Domracheva, was a very early starter in the 7.5 k sprint, but despite a penalty she moved into first place by over a minute when she crossed the finish line – leaving fans guessing as to whether she skied so fast she’d end up on the podium regardless.
But the rest of the women’s field wasn’t going to just let her have it. 12 bibs later, Tiril Eckhoff of Norway showed that there was a new boss in town. She also had one penalty, but skied even faster than Domracheva, and charged into first place by 9.5 seconds.
“I never thought that I would do it,” the 24-year-old told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I thought maybe I’d be in the top ten.”
Eckhoff is, improbably, coached by her brother Stian. More than ten years her senior, Stian Eckhoff won the World Cup sprint in Östersund in both 2004 and 2005. He is now coaching the Norwegian women’s team.
“I’m a little surprised she’s already matching Domracheva,” he told NRK.
The youngest Eckhoff was helped by Gabriela Soukalova, another star from last season. The Czech has been off to a rocky start, and suggested before the World Cup season began that she has been focusing on other aspects of her life (she recently starred in a nude photo campaign to raise awareness of cancer) and will get faster as the season goes on.
So, despite being passed by Eckhoff from two minutes back, Soukalova held on and seemed to have every inch of the old fight left in her. The two battled back and forth over the final kilometer and it’s safe to say that Soukalova’s presence and speed helped propel Eckhoff to the top of the podium.
“It hurt like shit at the end,” Eckhoff admitted to NRK.
It turned out to be close: Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic cleaned all ten targets, and left the shooting range with the lead. She lost seconds on the last lap, however, and ended up 4.6 seconds behind Eckhoff.
“Today was very hard on the trails,” Vitkova said in the post-race press conference. “The 15 k was better for me. Tiril was very fast today.”
Then came Kaisa Makarainen. The Finn had missed two targets, but also had the fastest ski time of the day by a whopping 30 seconds. A two-time World Cup overall champion, Makarainen pushed hard for the win. In the end she landed third as she crossed the finish line, exactly three seconds behind Vitkova.
Finally, the last threat came from Dorothea Wierer, a sharshooting Italian. Wierer, like Vitkova, had hit all her targets. She left the range in first place – but despite much-improved skiing this season, it wasn’t quite enough and she slipped off the podium by the finish, ending up in fourth place just one tenth of a second ahead of Domracheva.
Eckhoff could rest, assured of her victory – the very first in her career, although she earned bronze in the mass start at the 2014 Olympics.
“It feels amazing and indescribable,” she told NRK. “It’s absolutely magical to see yourself as number one.”
She also had some words for media outlets like NRK, who criticized her after she finished seventh in the individual race on Thursday and also questioned whether the Norwegian women’s team would be any good this season.
“It’s nice to come back to the Norwegian journalists,” she said in a press conference after the race. “They have been really tough, so it’s nice to show that I belong in the top…. it’s boring to get so much shit.”
Vitkova was also pleased.
“I’m very happy because it’s my second second-place finish on the World Cup,” she said in the press conference.
With the victory, Makarainen took the yellow overall leader’s bib from Domracheva. It’s still early in the season, but this is a familiar battle for fans of biathlon.
“With two penalties, it’s very nice to be on the podium,” she said. “With the prone penalty I was a little bit sad because my finger was just a little bit too fast. It wasn’t meant to go so fast.”
All three are looking forward to tomorrow’s pursuit, where the top five women will all start within ten seconds of one another. Eckhoff said that her strategy would be to wait for Makarainen to, inevitably, pass her, then tuck in and draft; Makarainen suggested that the race would be decided on the shooting range, “woman to woman.”
She also offered a plea to race organizers, after describing how difficult the skiing was over the unevenly-salted, icy, slushy, and choppy course which claimed more than a few skiers in crashes and broke the rifle stock of Baiba Bendika of Latvia.
“I hope they will prepare the course a little bit better tomorrow, so that we don’t have too many crashes,” Makarainen said. “It’s a very big danger now to get a lot of crashes. We saw them already today. It’s very soft and it’s also icy on the downhills… you just have to hope that you will not fall down.
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.