All it took the Canadian women to have one of the greatest starts of their relay careers was a pep talk from a two-time Norwegian Olympic gold medalist, Halvard Hanevold, who notched 40 IBU World Cup podiums in his career.
According to Megan Heinicke, the team’s first skier in Wednesday’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay at the IBU World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, the Canadians had a team meeting with Hanevold on Tuesday night. She said it was “fantastic” and helped them going into the relay with “a really supportive team attitude,” she wrote in an email.
Whatever it was, it worked — and especially well for Heinicke — who shot out of the mass start with the leaders and put herself in fourth heading into the first shooting stage within two seconds of the Czech Republic, Finland and Norway, respectively.
There, Heinicke shot fast and flawlessly to find herself in second coming out of the range, 1.3 seconds behind Eva Puskarcikova of the Czech Republic and just 0.1 seconds ahead of Germany’s Franziska Preuss in third.
“I was thinking ‘holy cow I’m up here again!’ ” Heinicke recalled. “I was excited and motivated. I also tried to think tactically and stay in our little group of 3 and not let myself do too much work.”
The Czech Republic, with Puskarcikova, Gabriela Soukalova, Jitka Landova, and Veronika Vitkova, was coming off a relay victory a week earlier in Oberhof, Germany. The German women had placed 10th in that race, but with a new lineup of Franziska Preuss, Franziska Hildebrand, Vanessa Hinz, and Laura Dahlmeier, respectively, they knew they could be in contention.
“We changed the team [with Hildebrand and Dahlmeier in place of Luise Kummer and Karolin Horchler],” Hildebrand told the IBU after the race. “That is all, but we were confident that we could be on the podium…”
So were the Canadians, but they were among the teams flying lowest on the radar after being lapped in the Oberhof relay.
Yet Heinicke, and the rest of her teammates — Julia Ransom, Audrey Vaillancourt and Zina Kocher — knew they had the potential. Hanevold reminded them of that. With Rosanna Crawford out with a cold, Heinicke explained they tried new relay combination, which was an important step before IBU World Championships in March.
Coming into the second shooting within a second of Preuss and Puskarcikova, Heinicke used one spare to leave the range in second, 17.6 seconds behind Puskarcikova, who cleaned.
“It was hard to shoot clean with the snow falling, but it was easier than in Oberhof,” Puskarcikova told the IBU. “I am not exactly sure how I shot 10 for the second week in a row.”
A rainstorm began before zero, 1 1/2 hours before the race on Thursday, and didn’t let up, coating competitors and spectators in a wet, slushy mixture between rain and snow. That made both skiing and shooting tough, but Heinicke didn’t notice.
“I was so focused on the race in the moment that the conditions didn’t effect me too much,” she wrote. “I think the pressure and excitement of being near the front of the race helps me have a sharper focus in a weird ‘heightened senses’ kind of way.”
Heinicke focused on her technique and held her position through the exchange, tagging Ransom in second, 25.2 seconds behind the Czechs and 2.5 seconds ahead of Poland in third.
“Sprinting is really not my strength and I was really giving my all so I was just mentally coaching myself along!” Heinicke wrote.
Meanwhile, Ransom, in her first World Cup season at age 21, tried to control her excitement.
“Megan has tagged off to me in excellent positions twice now!” Ransom wrote in an email. “All I could think was that opportunity was there ready to be seized.”
She maintained second through the first shooting, which she cleaned, and up until her standing stage, where she entered the range 59 seconds behind Soukalova in first and 10 seconds behind Hildebrand in second.
“I would be lying if I said the conditions were easy, but I secretly love it when it’s miserable out there,” Ransom wrote. “Canadians are tough! And if you can be tougher than the others, a little bit of rain, sleet, wind, or cold will feel like nothing.”
In that second stage, she missed three but avoided penalty loops with three spares.
“I think my standing shooting was affected by my excitement. I know I can hit targets, but when I am not 100% ‘there’, that’s when things can get squirrelly!” she wrote. “I buckled down for the spares and got out as quick as I could. When there were three spares for three targets, I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to give my parents a heart attack.’ They watch the live stream back in Canada.”
Meanwhile, Soukalova and Hildebrand used two spares, and Belarus’s second leg, Iryna Kryuko, cleaned her second-straight stage to move into third behind the Czech Republic and Germany, respectively.
By now, Soukalova had built up a minute lead over Hildebrand, and Kryuko was 1:13 back, followed by Ukraine’s Natalya Burdyga in fourth (+1:18) and Norway’s Fanny Welle-Strand Horn in fifth (+1:22). Ransom left the range just another second behind in sixth, and tagged Vaillancourt in the same position, 1:53.1 behind the Czechs.
“Being the youngest on the team, I sometimes feel an internal pressure to prove myself and I believe I did today,” Ransom wrote.
Vaillancourt explained in an email that she was excited to start in a pack.
“I thought it was possible for us to finish in the top 6 if Zina and I both had a great race,” Vaillancourt wrote.
With Landova, the Czechs began to extend their lead on Germany. Entering their first prone, Landova was up to 1:15 ahead of Hinz. Ukraine’s Olga Abramova was 1:41 back, just 0.6 seconds ahead of Norway’s Elise Ringen and 2.4 seconds ahead of Nadzeya Pisareva of Belarus. Vaillancourt followed in sixth, 2:13 behind Landova.
In her first stage, Landova missed two shots and had to use a third spare to avoid her team’s first penalty loop of the day. She delivered and left the range still well ahead of Hinz, who cleaned to cut the deficit to 29.7 seconds.
Abramova cleaned as well to hold onto third, 52 seconds behind Landova. Pisareva and Ringen used one spare each and left in fourth and fifth, 1:02 and 1:05 back. Vaillancourt used one spare as well to stay in sixth, another 33 seconds behind.
One the next lap, Poland’s Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak passed Vaillancourt early on, and Canada slipped one spot to seventh.
Vaillancourt cleaned her standing stage and left the range still in seventh, but lost one more place by the final exchange.
“I was mostly losing time on the uphills,” she recalled. “I have been very sick in the past two weeks and hardly have been able to train, so I knew this was going to be a tough one on the skis. I am glad the ice is broken though.”
Landova held steady up front, missing her second-standing shot and using a spare, but leaving the range 29 seconds ahead of Hinz, who also used one spare to stay in second. Belarus jumped to third, 1:12 behind, with clean shooting from Pisareva, and Norway was another 6 seconds back in fourth despite Ringen using two more spares.
Abramova used three spares to fall to fifth for Ukraine, and Russia improved to sixth with 10-for-10 shooting from Ekaterina Shumilova.
By the last exchange, the Czech Republic had a 30-second cushion to Germany in second, and was a whopping 1:14 ahead of Belarus in third. Norway and Ukraine skied together in fourth and fifth, more than a minute and a half back, Poland moved into sixth (+2:10), and Russia tagged off in seventh (+2:12.5).
Canada was 2:37.1 back in eighth with one 6-kilometer leg to go, and the U.S. women, in their first relay of the season, started the last leg in 16th (+5:28.4).
Ninth heading into prone, Kocher used three spares and had to ski Canada’s first penalty loop to drop to 12th, 4:18 behind Vitkova, who used one spare to keep the Czechs in control.
Germany’s Dalhmeier and Domracheva of Belarus both cleaned after her, but were well out of sight by the time they left the range in second and third, one minute and 1:24 later, respectively.
“Shooting was basically catastrophic considering it wasn’t like last week in Oberhof,” Kocher wrote of Thursday. “Prone, I evaluated the wind flags wrong. Wind really picked up when I got into prone. I made a correction before I started shooting. But it was not enough for the change in direction. I corrected more once I was on spares and hit 3 shots with the 3 spares but then it was too late, I already had 4 misses.”
She skied up to 11th with the fourth-fastest course time on her second lap, but missed four again for another penalty loop, which put Canada 5:36 behind and still in 11th. Kocher posted the second-fastest last loop of the anchor legs to finish 5:33.8 behind the winner — Vitkova of the Czech Republic.
Vitkova had used a single spare on each stage to stay more than a minute ahead in first. Belarus moved to second with Domracheva skiing the fastest anchor leg and using a single spare throughout her two stages.
While Vitkova had enough time to take her poles off and grab a Czech flag from a spectator before casually skiing across the line, Domracheva entered the stadium uncontested as well and looked back before celebrating second, 1:13.3 behind the Czechs, who won in 1:23:57.7.
“It was easier for me today because the other girls gave me such a big lead,” Vitkova told the IBU.
Germany hung on to the podium in third, 1:39.3 back from the winners, and a minute ahead of Norway (anchored by Tiril Eckhoff, who cleaned her first stage and used three spares on the second) in fourth.
Ukraine placed fifth (+2:49.7) with a clean final stage and one early spare from Valj Semerenko. France was sixth (+3:55.3) with 17 total spares, Poland placed seventh (+4:14.4) with two penalties and 10 spares, Russia was eighth (+4:36.5) with two penalties and 13 spares, Italy ninth (+4:44.6) with two penalties and 13 spares as well, and Austria took 10th (+4:51.2) with two penalties and eight spares.
Canada crossed the line 42.6 seconds later with two penalties and 11 total spares.
“Can’t say I feel great about my performance today. I skied strong but that doesn’t make up for the 2 laps,” Kocher wrote. “It’s great to see that there are younger athletes coming up showing such strong performances. It’s always motivating for the entire team.”
While Heinicke explained the race could have been better, she added that it also could have been worse. “We gave it our all,” she wrote.
“Our relay shows so much potential and I know that our day to shine will come,” Ransom wrote.
“It think we showed that if everyone has a good day, we can definitely be one of the top nations!” Vaillancourt added.
U.S. Women in 16th Before Being Lapped
The Americans stayed in the race until the final leg, when Maddy Phaneuf in her World Cup debut completed two stages and was lapped before coming into the finish. She had one penalty and three spares in prone, and used one spare in standing to bring the team’s grand total to three penalties and 19 spares.
The team’s opening skier, Susan Dunklee used two spares in each of her shooting stages to go from 15th to 12th, and finally up to 10th (+1:03.5) with the fourth-fastest, first-leg course time.
And she started in the back.
“I had the last row of the starting lanes all to myself,” Dunklee explained in an email. “I followed Mari [Laukkanen] from Finland (also seeded near the back) because she is a strong skier who knows how to maneuver in a crowd. That whole first loop was about being patient in the pack, moving when spaces opened up, but not wasting energy. The weather worked to my advantage today because I am a strong V1 skier and the entire course felt like one long uphill because of the resistance.”
Dunklee explained that the heavy rain caught the racers off guard.
“I think everyone assumed the crappy weather was behind us after Oberhof,” she wrote. “The snow behaved like sandpaper and we had to V2 many of the downhills. I used every change of dry clothes that I brought and still struggled to stay warm. It was especially difficult to keep enough feeling in our hands to shoot.”
Dunklee came through the exchange in 10th, and Dreissigacker held the position throughout the second leg, despite using three spares in both her prone and standing stages. She tagged Annelies Cook in 10th, 2:31.7 behind the leaders.
Cook dropped to 16th after her first shooting, with two penalties and three spares. She used two spares on the second stage and tagged Phaneuf in 16th (+5:28.4).
According to Dunklee, the team always aims for a top result each time they toe the line, but they were also simply excited to have enough women to field a relay for the first time this year.
“Maddie has never been on the World Cup before, but what an epic way to start!” she wrote. “She got the full experience with thousands of crazy fans and unpredictable weather. She is very young with lots of racing ahead of her, and I think she did a great job today taking it all in and staying level headed.”
- 4 x 6 k relay
- Annelies Cook
- Audrey Vaillancourt
- biathlon canada
- canadian women's relay
- Czech Republic
- Eva Puskarcikova
- Franziska Hildebrand
- Franziska Preuss
- Gabriela Soukalova
- Halvard Hanevold
- Hannah Dreissigacker
- IBU World Cup
- Jitka Landova
- Julia Ransom
- Laura Dahlmeier
- Maddy Phaneuf
- Megan Heinicke
- Ruhpolding women's relay
- Ruhpolding World Cup
- Susan Dunklee
- U.S. women's relay
- Vanessa Hinz
- Veronika Vitkova
- Zina Kocher
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.