In today’s 10 k World Cup pursuit in Östersund, Sweden, the race actually didn’t come down to the last shooting stage.
Instead, all the action came one stage earlier, the first time the women’s field hit the mats for standing. As had been true all day, the wind was blowing hard. The leaders took their shots, took their chances on the wind, and missed.
Kaisa Mäkäräinen of Finland came in just behind them. She had led earlier in the race, accrued two penalties, and then worked her way back. When she got to the shooting mat, she stood, and she waited. Then carefully, little bit little, she knocked down each of her five targets.
“My shooting was going up and down in the summertime,” Mäkäräinen said in an IBU video interview. “But now it’s getting better in the races, and when you get one good race, like in the individual where I had only two penalties, it gives you more self-confidence. And then you are more ready in the next races.”
Behind her, Dorothea Wierer of Italy did the same thing, but seven seconds faster. The four women ahead of them had all missed two or three targets apiece; Mäkäräinen and Wierer sailed out onto the course while they were stuck in the penalty loop.
“It was the key moment today, to shoot clean in the third shooting,” Mäkäräinen said in a press conference.
Third-place Valj Semerenko was 34 second back by the time she left the penalty loop.
Mäkäräinen quickly dropped Wierer. By the time she came into the range for her last bout, there was little doubt that she would stay on the podium. Even with one penalty, she had been skiing so fast that she’d probably win.
Mäkäräinen did miss one shot, but then Wierer missed two. Semerenko missed one of her own.
Leaving the range, Mäkäräinen had a 45-second advantage, and a clear win. She just didn’t know it.
“I didn’t know what had happened until the middle of the last loop, when my coaches told me,” she said. “So until then I just skied as fast as I could, because I didn’t know if it was ten seconds, or a lot more.”
It was a lot more. By the end, her lead was almost a minute, and she took some much-deserved time to celebrate coming down the finishing straight.
Semerenko caught Wierer from four seconds back and tried to bury her. Initially, it looked like Wierer was going to be left behind. But the Italian gritted her teeth and caught back up. Visibly grimacing, she stuck to the Ukrainian Olympic medalist’s ski tails for the entire 1500 meters to the finish.
“I was really dead,” Wierer admitted in the press conference. “But it was a good last round for me. I wasn’t training so much the last days, I was more [sick] in bed than on the track, but I can feel that with a few more days I can get better again.”
Wierer knew that the course finished on a downhill, and that if she could just stay behind Semerenko until then, she might be able to use the slingshot effect to snag second place. The two shot into the finishing lanes one after the other, Wierer doing her best to use her added height on the diminutive Ukrainian to propel her past.
It was a valiant effort, but she came up 0.4 seconds short. It was Semerenko’s second podium of the weekend after placing third in the 15 k individual, and the second podium of Wierer’s career.
“This has been a quite successful competition for me,” Semerenko said through a translator in the press conference. “I’ve been two times on the podium… I’m a top athlete and my goal is to always compete.”
Darya Domracheva of Belarus finished fourth; after losing the lead to Mäkäräinen on that decisive third shooting bout, she could never make her way back. She remains in second place behind Mäkäräinen in the World Cup Total Score.
“I didn’t expect such a start, but of course I am very very happy with this,” said Mäkäräinen, who used early wins in Östersund to help secure the overall title in 2011.
Teja Gregorin of Slovenia and Tiril Eckhoff of Norway rounded out the flower ceremony.
Rosanna Crawford was the lone starter for Canada, setting out in 12th place. With a single penalty in every shooting stage, she could never manage to move up in the rankings despite aggressive skiing – she racked up the 12th-fastest course time of the day. Crawford ended up 14th, 1:48 behind Mäkäräinen.
“It terms of shooting, missing one target isn’t that bad, but when you miss one every time it can be pretty frustrating,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Especially since I missed my last shot standing, there was no need for that :)! Overall I am happy with how the week went, sitting in 12th for overall World Cup is pretty exciting! But I know there is so much potential, I am really looking forward to the rest of the season!”
The lone U.S. woman to qualify for the pursuit, Susan Dunklee, finished 19th.
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.