Early on in the women’s 12.5 k mass start in Oberhof, Germany, Kaisa Makarainen and Darya Domracheva broke away from the field.
The Finn leads biathlon’s World Cup Total Score; Domracheva, of Belarus, is a triple Olympic gold medalist from the 2014 Games in Sochi. And both had extremely disappointing races in Friday’s 7.5 k sprint, placing 20th and 18th, respectively, with four penalties apiece in windy, foul-weather conditions.
The pair seemed eager to leave that memory behind as they pulled away from the 28 other women competing. In the end, Domracheva would come away with the victory – but it was far from straightforward. In fact, when they hit the shooting range for the first prone stage, both accumulated two penalties.
While they were sent to the penalty loop, Dorothea Wierer of Italy shot clean and went into the lead.
“When you leave the shooting range in one of the last positions, it’s not such a nice feeling,” Domracheva said in an IBU press conference. “But with these weather conditions I thought it was possible. I was a little bit tired after this first, quite fast, loop – plus two penalty loops, it was not so easy.”
Makarainen and Domracheva had 45 seconds to make up, but they had caught Wierer and her pack of skiers by the time the field came in for the second prone stage.
It became something of a pattern: on a day with lots of wind gusts, only two women in the entire field shot clean for all four stages. Not once did either Makarainen or Domracheva leave the range in first position, but they would dutifully chase down their better-shooting competitors, grimacing as they skied through the field at a furious tempo.
Valj Semerenko led out of the second stage, but Makarainen pulled a lucky group of four other athletes back up to her before the first standing stage.
There, Jana Gerekova of Slovakia became one of the few racers to clean through three stages. She set out in the lead, but Domracheva – from 16 seconds back – chased with a vengeance. Both Domracheva and Veronika Vitkova, the winner of the sprint, caught her and put on a small gap by the time the all-important fourth shooting rolled around.
Domracheva and Vitkova tried to shoot carefully, but each missed a shot. Sliding in a few seconds behind them, Gerekova carefully hit each of her five targets. She left to ski the last 2.5 k with a 16-second lead on Vitkova. Domracheva was two more seconds behind.
But the effort of maintaining a first-place position for so long was beginning to take a toll. Gerekova had skied the eighth-fastest third loop in the field, and the 16th-fastest fourth loop. She was getting tired, and it showed. Her final loop was the 28th-fastest of the field.
Domracheva passed Vitkova and kept right on going, surging past Gerekova and into the lead. By the finish, she had a 14.9-second gap for her third win of the season.
“It’s not surprising to hear from me, one of the rules is to never give up,” Domracheva said in the press conference.
Then Vitkova passed Gerekova. But the skiers kept coming: the flagging Slovak was unable to hold onto a podium position. Tiril Eckhoff of Norway slipped past, and then Makarainen – who made up an astounding 44 seconds of time in those last 2.5 k.
Gerekova settled for fifth, still the best international result in a decade-long international career. It was also a relief for Slovakia: their star woman, Anastasiya Kuzmina, has two Olympic gold medals to her name and is the most popular female athlete in Slovakia, but just announced that she is pregnant and will miss the entire season.
The second-place finish capped an impressive weekend for Vitkova, who not only won the sprint competition on Friday, but also anchored the winning Czech team in the women’s relay on Wednesday.
“I trained very hard over Christmas, and now I came back and it is one of the best weeks in my career,” she said in the press conference.
With the win, Domracheva made a move in the Total Score, climbing from fourth up to second and passing Semerenko and Wierer in the standings. But she still trails Makarainen, who has four wins already this season, by 100 points (a win is worth 60 points).
“For sure this motivates me better,” Domracheva said.
The pair were head and shoulders above the competition when it came to skiing: Domracheva turned in a course time 10 seconds faster than Makarainen’s, but it was over a minute from Makarainen back to the next-fastest skier, Eckhoff.
American biathlete Susan Dunklee was looking to climb in the rankings too, but struggled both on the range and on skis. She picked up eight misses and finished 27th, 4:24 behind Domracheva.
“I had a very ‘closed body’ day,” Dunklee explained in an email. “My legs felt heavy and unresponsive. In the first prone, I don’t think I quite gave myself enough time to settle. I was very thankful to have Mari to pace me since we were so far behind the pack. In the last standing my legs were shaking like crazy, it was windy, and I couldn’t seem to gather enough mental energy to focus on the targets.”
Crawford Disappointed in 20th
While most of Canada’s World Cup team is home resting, Rosanna Crawford came to Oberhof along with “B” team athletes who were taking the starts in an attempt to maintain her eighth-place position in the Total Score.
In the mass start, she picked up five penalties and finished 20th.
“I’m definitely a bit disappointed,” she said in a phone interview. “I set a goal of top 15, and 16 for 20 I thought could probably get me there. My last standing, I thought for sure I had hit my fourth shot [but didn’t] and that threw me off for my last shot, and so I missed the last two. That’s always a hard pill to swallow.”
It wasn’t just the wind; Crawford said that she also struggled to find the ski form that earned her fourth- and fifth-place finishes on the World Cup before Christmas.
“I’ve always had a little bit of trouble with these World Cups right after Christmas, with ski speed,” she explained. “We’ll see how things look next week in Ruhpolding and again in Antholz. Hopefully I can get back to where I was before Christmas. I’m definitely a bit slower right now.”
Nevertheless, she tried to use heads-up skiing out on course and also to have a little bit of fun. The horrible weather in Oberhof for the last few days had created a bit of extra camaraderie among the athletes, she suggested. She used her fast skis – “I definitely had some of the best boards out there” – to try to help out the group, so that she could then rest and follow their lead when she needed to.
“I made sure to ski tactically well today, and tried to do as little work as possible on the flats, and always having somebody in front of me,” she explained. “In order to make up for that, because my skis were so good, I’d push the girls on the flat section before you’d turn into the headwind. It would give them some more rest so then I could hang out behind them a bit more.”
Women’s races usually string out much more than men’s races, where the competitors are more likely to hang back in groups and fight it out for placings at the finish. Crawford wanted to reverse that a bit on Saturday after a hard week of racing.
“It’s always good to work together, but I think women are a little bit not as good at it,” she said. “Today I wanted to make sure that I brought that feeling to the group, of working together. Especially when you have good skis, even though it’s a competition with every single country out there, you kind of feel bad for people if you go flying by them on the downhill and then they catch back up to you on the uphill. You know they’re stronger, but your wax techs were just better on the day.”
Crawford is now 12th in the Total Score, one point behind Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic.
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.