Megan Heinicke had a little something called home-course advantage working in her favor on Friday, and for that matter, on Wednesday and this Sunday as well.
The 26-year-old Canadian from Prince George, B.C., has called Ruhpolding, Germany, her home since September. Lucky for her, the fifth IBU World Cup stop of the season was there, with races Wednesday through Sunday. And on Friday, the six-year Biathlon Canada veteran qualified for her first-ever mass start after placing a career-best 11th in the 7.5-kilometer sprint.
“This was one of my strongest skiing performances ever,” Heinicke wrote in an email after Friday’s race, in which she topped her previous World Cup best by one place (she was 12th in the 15 k individual at the beginning of the season in Östersund). “I simply felt strong and there is nothing more fun than fighting hard when you feel strong.”
The 16th starter out of 98 women, she finished 52.3 seconds behind the winner after shooting 90 percent with a clean prone stage and one standing penalty.
That put her in third overall after prone, and while her standing miss set her back to 10th and she slipped one more spot to 11th on the last lap, Heinicke initially finished fifth of 16 women.
“I was well aware that starting with bib 16 meant that there were still a lot of strong girls behind me so I wasn’t disappointed to fall back a bit [in the final results],” she explained. “I was really hoping to stay in 10th, but 11th is a new personal best and I am really pleased with the result.”
Throughout the race, she heard she was in contention with top women like Darya Domracheva of Belarus (who started 14th and ended up second) and Italy’s Dorothea Wierer (who started 19th and placed ninth). She wasn’t sure what that meant or where it would put her, but she felt strong and assumed she was doing well.
Going into the race, Heinicke had hoped for a top 30, but more specifically, to “glide longer in the flat sections and be a bit more explosive with higher frequency on the few steep sections,” she wrote. “Shooting wise I had been trying out some keywords and those were all I wanted to think about on the range.”
On Wednesday, Heinicke had another first, racing to second in the opening leg of the women’s 4 x 6 relay and putting her team 25 seconds from the lead at the exchange. The Canadians ended up 11th — not quite the team-best fourth they accomplished just over a year ago — but Heinicke saw it as a stepping stone.
“I had a great relay leg this Wednesday and had also had a great relay leg in Oberhof which had me feeling determined and confident,” she wrote. “I am slowly starting to feel more confident and I have this fierce determination to shoot well which is enough to keep me focused.”
The level of support she’s received has helped her as well.
“I have had some big life changes this fall and am feeling like there is no pressure on me and I think that has been good for my head,” she explained. “I am really motivated by having several personal bests this season and I feel like the return of my self confidence is good for me. I am planning to keep racing with the same determined, task-oriented approach and who knows what can happen! I certainly wasn’t expecting these results to come this year!”
With Friday’s result, Heinicke was one of two Canadian women to qualify for Sunday’s 12.5 k mass start. Rosanna Crawford sat out Wednesday and Friday because of a cold, but is currently 12th in the overall World Cup (making the top-30 criteria) and listed to start in bib 12.
In her first-career mass start, Heinicke will start in bib 28.
“I am glad I have been able to start our relay a few times so I am not feeling too nervous about starting in the pack,” Heinicke wrote.
Also for Canada on Friday, Zina Kocher placed 48th, 2:18.8 behind the winner — Fanny Welle-Strand Horn of Norway. After starting 96th, Kocher found herself in the top 20 after a clean prone and the 23rd-fastest course time on the first lap. However, she missed three in standing, which put her back from 31st to 65th with one lap to go. Kocher posted the 13th-fastest course time overall.
Audrey Vaillancourt finished 68th (+3:13.7) with a single prone penalty, and Julia Ransom, in her second World Cup sprint, was 81st (+3:55.8) with four penalties: one prone and three standing.
Dunklee: ‘One of my best performances of the year’
US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee led the Americans in what she considered one of her best performances of the year, in which she placed 26th, 1:44 behind Horn.
Dunklee started 30th and skied right around 30th for most of the race, cleaning prone and missing one in standing, and posted the 30th-fastest course time overall.
In an email, she explained her skiing felt “snappy,” which left her surprised with the splits she was hearing: why weren’t they better?
“There are always factors out of your control as an athlete,” Dunklee wrote. “Today we saw some tricky waxing conditions with wet snow and we didn’t nail it quite as well as we usually do.”
Skiing aside, she explained she had her best shooting day of the season, “which is a huge confidence booster going forward,” she wrote. “Plus I was happy, relaxed and focused this morning; I was just plain psyched to be racing, more so than I have been lately.”
On Sunday, Dunklee as the lone American in the women’s mass start will start in bib 23.
“I’m ready to try again in the mass start,” she wrote.
Her teammates, Annelies Cook and Hannah Dreissigacker, placed 52nd and 77th, respectively on Friday. Cook cleaned prone and missed one standing to finish 2:30.1 behind the winner, and Dreissigacker fell behind with two prone penalties and another miss in standing to end up 3:41.2 back.
Horn Surprises for First World Cup Win
While much of the attention in Friday’s sprint went to Domracheva, who started 14th and cleaned both stages despite using one spare in prone, there was also a lot riding on Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, the 31st starter who came within 4.2 seconds of Domracheva’s time heading into the final lap.
She couldn’t quite catch her, finishing 5.9 seconds behind Domracheva, but there was another Norwegian gunning for the win — Horn, who, at 26, had never before reached the World Cup podium.
Horn started 35th, two minutes after Eckhoff, and took the lead with a clean prone. She hit all her standing targets as well to stay in control, then raced the seventh-fastest last lap to edge Domracheva’s time by 3.4 seconds in 21:07.4.
“I have been in this game for a long time, five years in the World Cup,” she told the IBU afterward. “Today, everything worked out for me — skiing, waxing and shooting — I am really happy and I am really happy that I made 10 good shots.”
Norway took two of the top three with Eckhoff in third, after Domracheva in second.
“We had amazing skis today,” Eckhoff told the IBU. “We have a really strong team and it is really fun that I am on the podium with Fanny on top.”
While Domracheva lost a few seconds loading the spare, she was glad she was able to avoid a penalty loop.
“I am happy that I shot clean. Sometimes when things like that happens, an athlete misses the shot,” she said.
She also liked the modified course: “The new course is good; there were not so many girls falling anymore,” Domracheva said.
Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko placed fourth, 21 seconds after Horn, Finland’s Mari Laukkanen — an early leader after a clean prone stage — missed one standing to place fifth (+22.7), Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand cleaned for sixth (+28.6), and overall World Cup leader Kaisa Mäkäräinen missed one on each stage but skied the second-fastest course time to place seventh (+32).
Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic had the fastest course time, but missed three (one prone and two standing) to finish eighth (+41.2). Wierer was ninth for Italy (+43.3), and Czech Jitka Landova placed 10th (+50.9), 1.4 seconds ahead of Heinicke.
On Sunday, Mäkäräinen, who still leads the World Cup, will start the mass start in bib 1 alongside Domracheva in bib 2 and Semerenko in bib 3.
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.