When Leif Nordgren caught wind that he was seven seconds from a top 10 with one loop to go, he couldn’t help but get fired up.
The 25-year-old Minnesota native hadn’t cracked the top 20 in a World Cup since 2011, when he placed 17th in the mass start at 2011 IBU World Championships. The day before, in Friday’s mixed relay, US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler said Nordgren looked better than ever — a sign of things to come.
On Saturday, Nordgren started 44th and raced himself up to ninth at one point in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint, right after cleaning his first of two shooting stages. Twelve-and-a-half seconds behind race leader Martin Fourcade of France, who led through prone, Nordgren headed out on his second-to-last lap.
Entering the range for the last time, he glanced at the leaderboard and noticed quite a few men had missed their targets on the windy afternoon. He shot conservatively in standing and missed one, which “was a little deflating,” he said, “but all I could do was push hard the last loop and see where I ended up.”
Even after skiing a penalty loop, he heard he was within reach of a top 10, which ended up being a top 20 after all 94 men in the field had finished. Nonetheless, Nordgren raced to complete his last lap and ended up 15th before being bumped to 16th by Germany’s Arnd Peiffer.
Sixteenth ended up being Nordgren’s magic number as it stood as his World Cup career best, 1:04.8 back from Slovenian winner Jakov Fak.
“Today was almost a perfect race for me,” Nordgren said in a US Biathlon press release. “I felt really good on the skis, a little tired from the race yesterday, but not too much to handle. With clean shooting in prone I had a lot of momentum to work with right off the bat.
“I’m especially excited for tomorrow knowing I’m skiing good right now,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
In Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit, Nordgren will start 16th, 1:05 after Fak and at the same time as Russia’s Matvey Eliseev.
“Anything can happen in a race with 4 shooting stages,” Nordgren wrote. “If the conditions are tricky with wind like they can be here, then I look forward to a good opportunity to improve on today!”
Three American men started Saturday’s sprint, and all of them made the top 60 to qualify for the pursuit, with Tim Burke in 38th and Sean Doherty in 57th. Lowell Bailey is recovering from an illness in Ruhpolding, Germany, after running a fever for five days, according to Eisenbichler. On Monday, Bailey will meet the team in Oslo, Norway, to prepare for the next World Cup.
Burke finished 1:40.7 behind Fak after three initial prone penalties set him back to 81st overall after the first stage. He made up more than half of those positions with a clean standing stage and skied the eighth-fastest course time overall.
Doherty met his season-long goal of qualifying for the pursuit, finishing 7.6 seconds ahead of 60th and 2:24.3 behind the winner. Like Burke, he also missed three prone targets to slip to 87th overall early on, then improved to 68th and finally 57th after a clean standing.
“The first shooing was really quite a disappointment,” Doherty reflected in an email. “The wind here can be tricky and I did not adjust enough to compensate for that, but other factors aside I know I am much better than 3 misses.”
He tried to clear his head and refocus on the second lap, forgetting everything that happened before.
“It worked out and I squeaked into the pursuit,” Doherty wrote. “I felt very strong on course today, not much different than yesterday. We had great skis and I was trying my best to make full use of them.”
As for Sunday’s pursuit, he simply planned to “go for it and race hard,” he wrote. “We will just have to see how it works out!”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.