Note: This article has been updated to include comments from U.S. anchor Sean Doherty.
Friday’s mixed relay had to have been one of Leif Nordgren’s best races of all time. Just last week, the 25-year-old US Biathlon A-teamer skied up from 51st to 19th in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit at IBU Open European Championships in Otepää, Estonia, but US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler didn’t see that race in person.
What he did witness was one of Nordgren’s most memorable performances in the mass start at 2011 World Championships in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, in which he placed 17th with three misses. And that rivaled what he did on Friday as the third of four legs in the 2 x 6 + 2 x 7.5 k mixed relay.
Nordgren brought the U.S. from 10th to fourth before the final exchange with clean prone shooting and a single standing miss. He used his spare to clean that stage and left the range for the last time in fourth, about a minute and a half behind the three race leaders (Norway, Ukraine and the Czech Republic).
“You have to give a really big compliment to Leif today; he had world-class shooting today,” Eisenbichler said on the phone after Friday’s race, the second of two mixed relays (with Annelies Cook and Tim Burke placing ninth for the U.S. in the single mixed relay).
“I never saw him in as good running shape as 2011 at World Championships … For sure, this was his best performance, and from 2011 to now, that’s four years so that’s really encouraging,” he added. “I’m extremely happy with where he is right now and I think he’s still going up to  World Championships.”
Building on the foundation teammates Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker laid as the first and second legs, respectively, of the Americans’ mixed relay on Friday, Nordgren tagged Sean Doherty in fourth.
The 19-year-old Doherty anchored them to seventh, 2:23.8 behind the Norwegian winners (Fanny Welle-Strand Horn, Tiril Eckhoff, Johannes Thingnes Bø, and Tarjei Bø) and 0.2 seconds behind Germany in sixth.
“We were only two-tenths of a second out of the flower ceremony today, which is an exciting accomplishment, and it also makes us very hungry for more,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “Everyone skied very well today, and the guys did some fantastic work with the shooting.”
Dunklee used a total of four spares (two on each stage) to put the team in fourth after the first leg. She handed off to Dreissigacker, who used five spares (three prone and two standing) to tag Nordgren in 10th. Nordgren used just one spare, and Doherty used one in prone and two more in standing to finish seventh with a team total of 13 spares.
“I was really happy with the race today for my part,” Nordgren wrote in an email after posting the fifth-fastest course time and fifth-fastest range time on the third leg. “This whole year I’ve struggled to put both good shooting and good skiing together on the same day. Today I did just that, so I think I can be happy that things seem to moving in the right direction as we approach [World Championships] in Finland.”
Dunklee raced the fastest time of all 22 starters, leaving the range in 17th after her first shooting and improving to 10th before her last lap. By the time she got to Dreissigacker, Dunklee was up to fourth.
“I always expect Susan to crush it and pass people like crazy and tag off near the front,” Dreissigacker wrote in an email. “That’s normal for her. But she really outdid herself with the passing today! I had to laugh when I saw how much she’d moved up by the time I’d made my way over to the exchange zone. I was psyched!”
“I used more spares than I would have liked and channeled the frustration from the range into speed on the ski track,” Dunklee explained. “At the start of the second loop, I forgot entirely about pacing for a couple minutes and focused solely on regaining contact with the main pack. Then my body reminded me that that wasn’t a sustainable pace.”
She spent her last loop trying to ski “smarter” and save energy for the last climb. Leaving the range, she caught Switzerland’s Elisa Gasparin then slingshot by her before the last uphill.
Dreissigacker reflected that her first lap skiing in the top four felt fast, “but I wasn’t really feeling too much…so I was able to go harder than I maybe should have,” she wrote.
She seized the chance to ski behind France’s Marie Dorin Habert on her first lap, then slipped to seventh after her first shooting.
“I think that the wind was a bit variable on the first stage, but mostly I just wasn’t super well-settled,” Dreissigacker wrote. “I’ve been having a bit of a prone-shooting slump for the last few days, so I’m hoping to improve on that.”
Feeling the fatigue start to set in on her last two laps, Dreissigacker reminded herself how much she liked the course and “kept fighting.”
“In standing, I felt good through the first 5 shots, but had one close miss and then I got shaky shooting spares,” she wrote. “I accidentally fired one spare way too early when I wasn’t even on target, so I was just happy to hit that last one!”
Pushing to stay with Russia’s Ekaterina Shimulova on the last lap, Dreissigacker wasn’t able to do so and tagged Nordgren in 10th, 13 seconds behind Shimulova in eighth and 11.6 seconds back from Italy’s Federica Sanfilippo in ninth.
“I wanted to stay with [Shimulova] and catch up to the pack ahead so that Leif would have a good pack to ski with,” Dreissigacker wrote. “Luckily he had an awesome day and managed to catch the pack all by himself. The rest of the team did so well and it was really fun to watch the rest of the race and cheer as I cooled down.
“It was such an exciting finish!” she added. “Sean did awesome…and in a year or two, if not way sooner, he’ll be winning those photo-finishes.”
For Nordgren, fast skis helped, he explained, as he caught the group ahead of him on the first loop.
“I felt totally in control the first two loops, and I was able to push hard the last loop also,” he explained.
Nordgren added that by the end of last week, he could already feel like his shooting was starting to come around. He felt similarly about his ski shape: “I had glimpses of good shape in Antholz, but with an additional 3 races in Estonia I think it really forced that good shape to come back a little quicker,” he wrote.
“I really like that tracks here in Nove Mesto, I think they suit me perfectly, combine that with the near perfect snow conditions that we’ve had all week, and it just makes it really nice skiing,” Nordgren added. “As a team we all decided last night that we’d like to finish ahead of our bib number (7). So it was really close today, everyone from the team put in a really good effort, but sometimes it comes down to a few cm!!”
Doherty hung in fifth for most of his race before France’s Martin Fourcade and Germany’s Benedikt Doll passed him before the finish. The youngest member of the U.S. team, Doherty pushed to stay with them, but finished 2.3 and 0.2 seconds back, respectively.
“Funny thing, from where the warm up track is here in Nove Mesto you are a little bit out of the action, so I did not really know how well Leif was doing until I got into the start pen,” Doherty wrote in an email. “I was excited to be in such a good position, it is a great challenge and I am feeling good on the skis so I was excited to go against the other top athletes.
At the end of the day, Eisenbichler was pleased, especially with both the team’s single mixed relay and four-person mixed relay finishing in ninth and seventh, respectively.
“Top 10 is really something we should always reach for,” he said. “It was really, really tight, especially in the mixed relay.”
Norway won the four-person relay in 1:12:49.2 with six spares, holding the Czech Republic (with Veronika Vitkova, Gabriela Soukalova, Michal Slesingr, and Ondrej Moravec) by 4.1 seconds. The Czechs used five spares, and Ukraine (Iryna Varvynets, Valj Semerenko, Dmytro Pidruchnyi, and Sergey Semenov) held tough for third (+1:21.3) with one penalty (from Semenov on his prone stage) and seven spares.
“Moravec is one of the fastest standing shooters, so today I wanted to show Moravec that I am the fastest,” Norway’s anchor, Tarjei Bø, told the IBU.
Using just one spare in prone and cleaning standing, he took the lead by 13.9 seconds with one lap remaining. Moravec, who used one spare on his last stage, closed on him in the final kilometers to come within four seconds of Bø, who had enough time to grab a large Norwegian flag before the finish.
“I think we can be really happy with second,” Slesingr told the IBU. “[Ondrej and I] spent a little more time in standing … Before the race we would have been happy with second so there is no disappointment … We were able to give something back to all of the fans who came here … we can feel their support that has made biathlon almost the number one sport in Czech Republic.”
Russia placed fourth, France was fifth and Germany was sixth.
Canada skied in the top 15 throughout the race with Audrey Vaillancourt, Rosanna Crawford, Nathan Smith, and Brendan Green ultimately placing 14th (+5:12.3).
“Overall I think the team had a rough day, we all seemed to have problems with our standing shooting,” Vaillancourt wrote in an email.
After her first mass-start experience on the World Cup, she cleaned the first shooting, but used three spares in standing to tag Crawford 1:28.4 back in 14th.
“I had a good start, but on the second hill a girl stepped on my pole and it fell off my hand. I had to go backwards to get it back and therefore lost the pack,” Vaillancourt explained. “Then I tried to catch up, but couldn’t do it before the first shooting.
“Skiing felt good, but I had a hard time making up for the time I had lost,” she added. “It might have affected my standing shooting. I wanted to get in, clean, and leave as fast as I could, but it didn’t work out so well. Instead I ended up using 3 spares.”
Her skiing felt better than in past weeks, she added, after her team spent a week of training “on lots of real snow” in Mittenwald, Germany.
Crawford explained she was starting to feel like her “old self” as well on Friday, after she skied the 10th-fastest course time of the second-leg skiers. She used two spares on her first stage, and then used three more and had a penalty loop after standing.
“I wanted to catch the pack of three just in front of me so I could have someone to ski with. That worked but then I lost what ever I had gained with poor shooting,” she wrote.
Crawford handed to Smith in 15th, 2:30 back.
“I was a bit surprised by the analysis. I thought I skied better than it looks on paper,” she wrote. “But hopefully this will just have gotten all the gears running again and tomorrow [the sprint] will be better. It’s a really hard 2.5km course. One of the tougher ones on [World Cup] I’d say. So good technique and proper pacing will be important. But it’s also only 3 loops so you have to be sharp!”
Smith cleaned prone to bring Canada up to 13th, but used two spares in standing and dropped one spot on the last lap to 14th. Green kept them there, with a clean first stage but had three spares and one penalty on his last shooting. He finished 14th, more than a minute and 10 seconds behind Italy in 13th.
“We had little hiccups starting with Audrey loosing a pole and loosing contact to the group, Rosanna having a penalty loop, Brendan having a penalty loop, Nathan not being able to stay with [Austria’s Julian] Eberhard when he was passed,” Biathlon Canada Head Coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an email. “Anyhow I believe we could be where the US team was today whom I congratulate for a great race by all members.”
“I think we’re disappointed. But are looking forward to the weekend,” Crawford wrote.
- Audrey Vaillancourt
- Bernd Eisenbichler
- Brendan Green
- Dmytro Pidruchnyi
- Ekaterina Shimulova
- elisa gasparin
- Fanny Welle-Strand Horn
- Gabriela Soukalova
- Hannah Dreissigacker
- IBU Open European Championships
- IBU World Cup
- Iryna Varvynets
- Johannes Thingnes Bø
- Leif Nordgren
- Marie Dorin Habert
- Michal Slesingr
- mixed relay
- Nathan Smith
- Nove Mesto
- Nove Mesto World Cup
- Ondrej Moravec
- Rosanna Crawford
- Sean Doherty
- Sergey Semenov
- Susan Dunklee
- Tarjei Bo
- Tiril Eckhoff
- US Biathlon
- Valj Semerenko
- Veronika Vitkova
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.