No matter what anyone else thought, Kaisa Mäkäräinen knew she still had it. Even at the end of a long string of 10 IBU World Cup races in 22 days, even as the laps wore on in Sunday’s 12.5-kilometer mass start, even after falling nearly 29 seconds back with two penalties in her third shooting.
“I did not feel too bad this morning and hoped some of the other girls would be more tired,” the 31-year-old Finnish biathlete told the IBU after the last race in Pokljuka, Slovenia. “After the third shooting, I felt that I had to work a little bit harder.”
And so she did.
Embarking on her fourth of five 2.5 k laps, she came within 15 seconds of France’s Anais Bescond, who found herself in the lead after the first standing with clean shooting through three stages. Mäkäräinen latched onto Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko, who, like her, had also been in the top two without a miss up until the third bout. There, a single penalty lap put Semerenko 13.2 seconds out of the lead in fifth.
On the second-to-last lap, the two worked to catch the four women ahead of them: Bescond, Germany’s Vanessa Hinz, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, and Nadezhda Skardino of Belarus. Hinz, Soukalova and Skardino had also hit all of their shots to that point.
At the last shooting, Bescond led Hinz and Soukalova into the range, carefully hit all of her shots and left the range in first once again. Hinz missed her first shot, and Soukalova and Skardino both cleaned, followed closely by fast-shooting Mäkäräinen and Semerenko, who also hit all five targets on the last standing.
Bescond, 27, left the stadium with a 9.8-second head start on Soukalova, tucking on her own on a descent, catching her breath and preparing for a tough final lap.
Mäkäräinen took off in fourth, 18 seconds out of first and 4.3 seconds behind Skardino in third. It didn’t take long for Mäkäräinen to get around Skardino and Soukalova, and the three-woman chase quickly formulated — then soon after dissipated when Skardino and Soukalova couldn’t keep up.
With just over a kilometer to go, Mäkäräinen caught and passed Bescond, who gave everything she had to stay with her. Skardino was another 11 seconds back in third, followed closely by Soukalova, and Semerenko, now 23.6 seconds behind.
Mäkäräinen took her tempo to the next level on a downhill leading into the final rise before the stadium. On the descent, she cruised toward the finish uncontested, pumped her arms and swung one fist up victoriously.
She had done it again, winning her 13th World Cup in 34:18.8 and tallying her eighth podium of the season. Bescond held onto second, 7.6 seconds behind Mäkäräinen, and waved to the crowd as she celebrated her second-best World Cup result and best mass-start finish.
“Today was a perfect day for me,” Bescond told the IBU. “My feeling on the skis was better and the shooting was perfect. I am happy to finish 2014 with a podium.”
Skardino locked up third, 15.8 seconds back, and Soukalova held off Semerenko by 1.1 seconds in fourth (+24.1).
Canada’s Rosanna Crawford finished 12th, 1:25.2 back with three penalties (1+1+1+0), for her second-best mass-start result after a series of career bests in Pokljuka and Hochfilzen, Austria, the weekend before.
“I was feeling really confident going into the race, feeling like maybe today could be the day for that elusive 20/20,” Crawford reflected in an email on Monday. “There was a bit of wind, but nothing crazy. My shooting average has been great so far, 88% I think, much better than I’ve ever shot, but prone is definitely my weak spot right now and it’s almost always one miss!”
In three weeks of racing, she missed more than one shot in a single stage just twice.
“So I am happy with [that], but I really need some 100% races if I want to be on the podium,” she wrote. “Skiing was decent today, our skis were good, nothing like the Hochfilzen pursuit ski feeling, but that race was one of that ‘awwww yea’ days that don’t happen too often!”
Crawford explained she struggled on the longer uphill, but usually caught back up to her closest competitors on the second half of the course. On the last lap, she glanced back to see Italy’s Karin Oberhofer just behind her.
“I knew if I could just make it to the top of the hill first I would hold her off!” Crawford wrote. “Last loops have been good for me this year. I feel like I usually have bit of gas left to make up some ground or hold someone off, but still cross the finish line totally empty, knowing that I passed the race well.”
At the end of the day, she posted the third-fastest range time with 85-percent shooting and wrapped up the first trimester in eighth overall in the World Cup. On Monday, she was flying home to Canmore, Alberta.
“I am really happy with where I am heading into the Christmas break, only one race that wasn’t in the top 16,” she wrote. “I’ll take a few days to recover and spend time with my family and dogs and then try to get some good training in before coming back to Europe. … After a mental break, I’ll put some focus into prone shooting and see if I can stop missing one shot every time :)!”
The other North American in the race, American Susan Dunklee finished 22nd (+2:26.9) with four penalties (2+1+1+0) to put herself 22nd in the overall World Cup.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day to end on in Slovenia and I had fun in my last race of 2014,” Dunklee said in a US Biathlon press release. Like Crawford, she had been battling a cold since earlier in the week.
“My body felt a lot better than [Saturday’s pursuit] and even though I missed a couple shots early in the race and lost touch with the lead pack, I had people to chase down every loop,” she said. “Team USA is looking forward to the holiday break and some time back home. All the European athletes are jealous that we’ll have lots of snow; it looks like a green Christmas for everyone over here.”
Also worth noting, early in the race after the first shooting, Darya Domracheva of Belarus fell out of contention as she was exiting her penalty loop after one miss. The Pokljuka pursuit winner, she had been leading the mass start with Mäkäräinen throughout the first lap, but collided with another racer, who was heading into the loop. Crawford was right behind Domracheva when it happened.
“It was a pretty crazy crash,” she recalled. “Darya and I were the first ones to enter and as we were leaving I was looking left to make sure I could get out unscathed and then smack, she collides right with a French athlete, lands right on her back/rifle and spins a bit, looked like it hurt!”
Halfway around the second 2.5 k lap, Domracheva rebounded to pass Crawford and a number of others. But she struggled with her spare rifle in the second prone, missed four, and pulled out of the race on the third lap.
While Crawford described the incident as “unfortunate,” she added, “I’m pretty sure the rule is that people leaving the penalty loop have to yield to people entering. This penalty loop is also one of the more sketchy ones for that happening.”
With the DNF, Domracheva currently sits third overall in the World Cup, behind Mäkäräinen in first and Semerenko in second.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.