Fans in Antholz, Italy, saw what is becoming a familiar scene on Saturday: German biathlete Simon Schempp winning a tight-packed group sprint to the finish and another World Cup victory. This time it was in the 12.5 k pursuit.
With the win – his third individual victory in a row after Friday’s sprint and the previous weekend’s 15 k mass start on home turf in Ruhpolding, Germany – the 26-year-old surged into second place in the overall World Cup standings. That is a circumstance that probably few people saw coming.
It’s not that Schempp wasn’t good before. A former World Junior Championships medalist, he won his first two World Cups in Antholz last season, then anchored Germany’s silver-medal relay team at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But last season was dominated from start to finish by France’s Martin Fourcade. Around him orbited a series of Norwegians to fill the podium.
For the last two weeks, Schempp has been practically unbeatable. He finished second in the Ruhpolding sprint before winning the pursuit, and also anchored Germany’s relay team which skied to an exciting win. Then came Antholz. Schempp mastered the sprint, winning by 14.4 seconds, before dusting some of the best skiers in biathlon in a finishing sprint in the pursuit.
Simon Eder of Austria finished just 0.1 seconds behind him after leading into the stadium; Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia was one more second behind after pulling the four-man group most of the way around the 2.5 k loop, and Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the winningest man in biathlon, either tired or just gave up in the final meters to finish fourth, 1.9 seconds behind Schempp.
The German had made errors early, missing a shot in each of his prone stages. Chalk it up, perhaps, to nerves.
“I was really nervous, because I was not so often in the first position before the pursuit,” he told the IBU’s Jerry Kokesh. “It’s a special competition for me.”
That allowed a group of Garanichev, Benjamin Weger of Switzerland, and Brendan Green of Canada to lead the race. But later on, those athletes made shooting errors of their own, while Schempp cleaned his standing targets. He was never farther back than fifth, but made up a deficit of 23 seconds to get back to the front of the race.
From there, boosted by the confidence of the last few days, he owned it. The final four men came into the last stage together, and remarkably, all of them cleaned. The final 2.5 k became a horse race and Schempp came out on top.
“I felt great today on the skis, and I had a lot of self-confidence on the shooting range,” Schempp said. “It’s like a miracle. The last four competitions are crazy for me. I was always on the podium and now the third victory in a row. Yeah, it’s crazy.”
Behind the leaders, two men moved up with perfect shooting: Fourcade, who had a disastrous (for him) sprint and finished 25th, and Erik Lesser of Germany, who had placed 19th in the sprint. Both gradually worked their way through the field. Fourcade pushed hard on the last lap, hoping to close a 25-second gap to the leaders or at least catch one of them if they tired; he made up ground, but ultimately relaxed by the finish when he realized it wasn’t to be. A minute and 20 seconds deficit from the sprint was just too much to make up with relatively few errors by the leaders.
“My sprint was awful,” he told the IBU. “I don’t know what happened, I felt empty. Today I’m so satisfied about my competition. [The sprint] was my third competition out of the top 20, and I can say that I had a bit lost confidence. And confidence is something really important for sport. It was hard to be back in the competition this morning without knowing my level. That’s why today is like a victory for me – I found back my confidence.”
Fourcade finished +31.9 and Lesser +45.6.
After being in the thick of things early, Canada’s Brendan Green saw his perfect shooting streak come to an end in the second stage of the pursuit. Along with Weger, he dropped out of the lead pack.
Missing two shots in each the second and third stages, Green was back in 23rd place. But he cleaned the final standing stage to turn things around and climbed back up to 18th, +1:58.2.
His teammate Christian Gow, in just the fourth World Cup start of his career and the first pursuit, skied from 52nd up to 46th. With two penalties, he finished +4:23.4.
Americans Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke missed five shots apiece, and finished 31st (+2:49.5) and 40th (+3:41.9).
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.