It would have been oddly quiet on the firing range, given that there were ten women lined up and ready to fire, if it had not been for the howling of the wind.
The dominant theme of the final day of World Cup competition in Antholz, Italy, Sunday was wind. Wind, and lots of it. Three weeks of back-to-back World Cup racing concluded this weekend, capped off with the 4 x 6 k women’s relay. While the men’s competition was plagued by a cold wind, the women’s competition was defined by it, as the wind whipped down the valley during the second leg.
The Czech Republic, which eventually finished second, was the only team in the entire field to escape without a penalty loop; Russia, placing fourth, was the only team with less than 10 spare rounds. Far more common was a tally of two or three penalty loops and 13-16 spares.
At the first handoff, the Czech Republic had the lead, the United States was in second after Susan Dunklee’s phenomenal first leg, and Poland was in third.
“I had some wind in standing,” Dunklee wrote in an email, “but luckily most of the people around me struggled too.”
On the second leg, however, the wind picked up.
During the second shooting stage, ten teams were standing on the mats, and the leader still hadn’t finished firing as all the women waited for the wind to die down. Snow swirled and flags whipped, but no bullets were fired. Gabriela Soukalova, of the Czech Republic, was the first into and out of the range, and her range time was 2:14. In contrast, her time on the previous round – before the wind picked up – was exactly one minute, including loading and shooting a spare round.
After Soukalova finally shot her third spare bullet and knocked over the final target the incentive to speed up firing returned. U.S. biathlete Hannah Dreissigacker, who had been in second place at the start of the standing leg, skied away with three targets left up. By the end of the leg, the U.S. had slipped to 12th.
By the exchange, Czech still had the lead, followed closely by Russia, then Ukraine, then Germany, then Italy.
The third leg was a grab bag of leads and exchanges, as one skier took the lead in prone only to lose it in standing. Tears streamed down the competitors’ cheeks as the wind and snow battered their eyes.
By the end of the third leg, Ekaterina Shumilova of Russia was in first, but barely. Germany’s Luise Kummer and Ukraine’s Olga Abramova were not far behind. And the bottlenecks at the last shooting had compressed the top ten teams to within 1:15, whereas they had been spread out over 2:34 after the prone stage – the wind had actually calmed as later competitors came onto the range, whereas the leaders had taken longer to shoot. At the tag, it was Russia, Germany and then Ukraine.
But nobody counted on Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier.
Dahlmeier, Germany’s anchor leg, ignored the swirling gusts of wind and coolly shot the five targets, leaving the standing leg 23 seconds ahead of Russia’s Ekaterina Glazyrina. After Dahlmeier cleaned standing, it was clear that she would ski away with the win.
Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic skied out in second, with Valj Semerenko and Glazyrina leaving the range at nearly the same moment, leaving the final 2 k ski as the battleground for the final spot on the podium. It was a battle won by Vikova.
The North Americans
“I had a great ‘open body’ feeling today on skis and during the last lap went into chase mode with little regard for pacing,” American Susan Dunklee wrote in an email. “It felt great to reel people in.”
Dunklee indeed had a strong final, passing four skiers and posting the fastest lap time for that leg. She tagged Hannah Dreissigacker into second place.
“The wind was unpredictable and hurricane-like at times, and then perfectly still,” Dunlee wrote in an email. “So shooting was a lottery Hannah and [anchor leg Clare Egan] had some bad luck with the timing of the strongest gusts.”
It was Egan’s first appearance on the World Cup – a difficult debut.
“Clare faced some incredibly difficult conditions in her first World Cup, but handled them admirably,” Dunklee continued. “She has a lot of potential and I can’t wait to see what she does once she starts to feel comfortable at this level.”
Annelies Cook skied the third leg, missing some shots but avoided the penalty loop. Cook tagged Egan to bring in the team in. Egan tried to take the day like any other.
“My goals for the day were to do my job well, just like any other day of training,” she wrote in an email. “Of course when I set my poles down on the shooting mat for the prone stage and they almost got blown away by gusting winds, I had to slightly adjust the ‘just like any other day of training’ part of my strategy.”
But her first time on the World Cup, and she had to modify her plans.
“I started shooting prone the same way I always do, in a rhythmic cadence that alternates breathing and pulling the trigger, but after missing the first three shots I took a different approach, waiting with the trigger half-pulled for any tiny break in the wind. That worked for me and I hit my last two targets and then all three spares, so I avoided going in the penalty loop.
“The wind was also a factor on the open parts of the course where snow had blown over the trail making it super slow, and there were strong headwinds. I was trying to channel Lindsey Vonn with a super strong tuck with my elbows in front of my knees at one point.”
The Canadian women placed tenth overall. Led by Megan Heinicke, the team consisted of Julia Ransom, Rosanna Crawford and Audrey Vaillancourt. It was this group’s first time doing a relay together, and they are optimistic:
“I think we can all be proud of our efforts today!” Ransom said, according to a press release from Biathlon Canada. “The wind was quite tricky with huge gusts coming from every direction.
“This was the first time us four girls have been a relay team together. This is a great starting block and I believe good things are going to come from this team!”