KONTIOLAHTI, Finland — Approaching the final shooting of Thursday’s 20-kilometer individual race at IBU World Championships, about eight seconds out of first, Martin Fourcade knew there was only one thing to do: hit every target.
But he didn’t overthink it. In fact, the 26-year-old Frenchman said he was on “automatic pilot” for that final standing stage. With the third-fastest range time for that bout, he ripped off five shots and knocked down each one. Fourcade took the lead, 3.5 seconds ahead of Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, who started 8 1/2 minutes before him. Then he tore into his final 4 k lap.
“I was really focused and I was looking straight at my coach because I wanted to feel the confidence in the eyes,” Fourcade said in a post-race press conference.
He had made all but one shot leading up to that point, missing one on his first standing. There, Fourcade in bib 34 of 127, slipped from first to ninth overall, 34 seconds behind Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø in first. From then on, Fourcade clawed back into contention for his first individual medal of the 2015 World Championships.
“I thought this morning that I won seven of my last 10 individual races in the World Cup so that means that’s a good competition for me,” he said of the 20 k. “But I also have to remember that I was 84th in the [individual at the] opening of the season in Östersund. That’s biathlon and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
Fourcade had started the 2015 World Championships off with silver in the mixed relay, then placed 12th in the sprint before finishing seventh in the pursuit. While the individual medal eluded him until Thursday, Fourcade said his mind wasn’t on that during the race.
“I knew after two shoots that I was not far from the lead, even with one penalty so I knew that anything was possible,” he said. “It was more about what I have to do than which result I could take.”
The man he finished 20.9 seconds ahead of and essentially took gold from, Svendsen felt similarly. The eight-time world champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist had yet to reach the podium this year in Kontiolahti, either.
“I think it’s been three months since I had a good race,” Svendsen, one of four men to clean the four-stage race, said in the press conference. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been feeling like I could be on the podium and it’s good to be back. I always want to be on top and people expect that of me. I’m very proud of my silver today.”
Fourcade entered the race as the defending world champion from 2013, as well as the 2014 Olympic champion in the 20 k individual in Sochi, Russia. Two years ago at World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, he took a medal in every event except the mass start.
Heading into Thursday, with two individual races remaining at worlds, some wondered if the favorites like Fourcade and Svendsen would make it back to the podium. So far, these championships have been highlighted by several gold medalists without a prior World Cup win.
“My beginning of World Championship is not bad,” Fourcade said. “I had a really good mixed relay. … In the sprint, I was kind of unlucky with the wind conditions. A lot of athletes missed in that race. Emil did, also the second in the World Cup rankings, Simon Schempp [of Germany] had seven mistakes.”
But what mattered most at the end of the day to Fourcade, the overall World Cup leader, was what he had achieved. His older brother, Simon Fourcade, 30, had started third and led the race with perfect shooting until Svendsen came through, cleaning and skiing faster to finish 24.8 seconds ahead of him. While Svendsen’s lead seemed significant, it wasn’t anything Fourcade couldn’t widdle down. On the final lap, he made up more than 17 seconds on Svendsen.
“When I think about where I was this spring, thinking about missing the biathlon season due to my mononucleosis, today I was so proud to be on top of the podium and winning the individual,” Fourcade said. “That is something that is so crazy, and I realize how lucky I am.”
Only one later starter came anywhere close to the top two: Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic. He started 40th, three minutes after Fourcade, and cleaned every stage except his first standing — just like Fourcade. He entered the last lap with nearly 32 seconds to make up on Fourcade and a 14-second deficit to Simon in third.
“I had good information [on that loop],” Moravec said in the press conference. “I heard in the beginning of the loop that maybe I lost some seconds, but I tried to push so hard so I’m satisfied I did it.”
He bested the time of one of the Fourcades, edging Simon by 5.2 seconds for bronze. It was Simon’s second fourth-place finish at these championships after he missed the podium by 4.2 seconds in the sprint.
For Moravec, it was his second medal of the championships after anchoring the Czech mixed relay to gold a week ago. A silver medalist in the pursuit and third in the mass start at the Sochi Olympics, he had never reached the World Championships podium until this year.
“I think the big events are motivation for all of the athletes, especially World Championships,” Moravec said. “It’s a big motivation for me and I’m so glad I take the medal.”
Ukraine’s Sergey Semenov placed fifth, 56 seconds behind Fourcade, with a single penalty on his first prone, and Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen made the flower ceremony as well in sixth (+1:12.1) with one miss on his first prone. After two initial clean stages, Bø ended up seventh with one penalty on his second prone.
In addition to Svendsen and Simon Fourcade, Russia’s Alexey Volkov (in ninth) and Yuryi Liadov of Belarus (in 17th) were the two other competitors to shoot 20-for-20.
“The conditions were perfect,” Svendsen said. “The tracks was really good and practically no wind on the shooting range so good day to shoot 20.”
Green 21st, Bailey 24th
Leading the way for Canada, Brendan Green finished in his somewhat-habitual spot of 21st on Thursday (after tying for 21st in the sprint last weekend and placing 21st in the 20 k individual at the Sochi Olympics). It was his second-best result of the championships so far, after he placed 16th in the pursuit.
“It’s been a really phenomenal week shooting,” Green said after going 19-for-20 with a single penalty on his first prone. “I’m a little bit surprised … In our training camp, I really wasn’t able to shoot much at all. Today, I really wasn’t able to do anything on the skis, and unfortunately wasn’t able to capitalize on the really good shooting.”
The 53rd starter, he worked his way into the top 30 with three-consecutive clean stages, including the last standing. At the finish, Green sat in the top 20 and ultimately finished 11.9 seconds outside of it in 21st, 2:59.6 behind Fourcade.
“I’m definitely happy with my result this championships, but when I bring my worst skiing of the year here it’s a little frustrating,” the 28 year old said. “The shooting’s just really clicking at the moment.”
While his shooting time ranked 11th, his overall course time was 49th. Green explained that Kontiolahti’s steep and “punchy” climbs don’t necessarily suit his strengths (he prefers more gradual or rolling terrain), adding that wasn’t an excuse. During the race, he backed off on the climbs slightly to prevent himself from red lining.
With the effort and the World Championships points he’s accumulated throughout the week, Green appeared to have qualified for Sunday’s mass start in 23rd out of 30 starters, based on a provisional start list. Americans Tim Burke, who was 31st on Thursday, and Lowell Bailey, who led his team in 24th, also qualified in 26th and 28th, respectively.
Canada’s Nathan Smith, who placed 44th in the individual with five penalties, had already secured his start with his sprint silver medal.
In his ninth World Championships, Bailey, 33, finished 24th in the 20 k with despite two early prone misses. He went on to clean his next three stages to finish 3:10 behind Fourcade.
“The only way to get back into the race is to shoot well,” he said. “I misjudged the wind. I was out on the left and I should’ve taken more clicks. I saw a lot of guys missing early and I should have reacted and I wasn’t decisive enough with the first prone. I’m happy with the rest of the race. I skied better than I have this whole series so that’s the silver lining.”
Surprised to miss two on his first bout — he said he hadn’t missed a prone all week — Bailey made corrections that led him to rise from 101st overall after the first stage to 23rd after the last standing. He ended up with the 22nd-ranked shooting time and 35th-ranked course time overall.
Burke was the second American in 31st, and despite having four minutes worth of penalties, he finished 3:52.7 behind the winner with the seventh-fastest course time.
“I feel like this year has probably been my best ski year ever and at the same time it’s been for sure my worst shooting year, so it’s frustrating,” Burke said.
While his shooting on Thursday was an improvement over recent races, with one miss in each of the first two stages and then two more in the final standing, he said, “It’s not bad, but it’s not world class, and that’s all I’m interested in.
“Today was one of my better days this year on skis; I felt strong the whole race, but four is just way too many penalties for an individual race with conditions like this,” he added, referring to the hard-packed, icy course.
After a clean third stage, he thought a top 10 might have been possible if he hit all his targets on the fourth stage. He crossed the finish line in 11th and ended up 31st.
Threatening to beat Burke’s time at the finish, his teammate Leif Nordgren, who started nearly 40 minutes after him, placed 33rd, 3.4 seconds after Burke.
Nordgren cleaned his first stage before missing one on each bout thereafter. He had the ninth-fastest range time overall.
“Any time you are in an individual, you have to see one or zero misses to have a really good day,” he explained. “I was definitely aiming for 95-percent shooting and good skiing. I am really happy with the way I skied. I think I was pretty strong, and shooting was so-so.”
While 33rd stood as his best individual result of these championships, Nordgren said his showing in Kontiolahti left something to be desired.
“I am a little disappointed on how the week has gone individually,” he said. “With the shape I had coming in and how I started off in the mixed relay [in which he anchored the U.S. to eighth], I was really hoping for more.
“My shape is good, better than it has been in a couple of years,” he added. “And that has carried through a couple weeks now. I feel like, in that regard, I have kind of gone up a step and I can be happy with that and take that … the next season.”
Nineteen-year-old Sean Doherty was the fourth U.S. man in 47th (+5:15.5) with three penalties (0+1+2+0). The result was his second best of his career after placing 45th in the pursuit last weekend.
“I knew I was capable of a little better shooting, but I feel like I skied a great 20 k,” he said. “I just tried to start under control with the pace and try to keep picking it up lap to lap, and it worked out well.
“My prone shooting has been a little up and down lately, but standing was good and I’m looking forward to the relay [on Saturday],” Doherty added. “I’m happy with my individual performances [here]. It was really good to make the pursuit; that was a big goal of mine. I’m getting good experience and things to work on for the summer.”
Canada’s second man, Smith placed 44th (+5:03.2) with five minutes of penalties (0+1+2+2). After a clean first prone, he initially had the lead as the 28th starter. Fourcade came through 2 seconds faster to take control, and Smith went on to miss one on his second shooting to fall out of the top 10.
“I thought with the one standing miss that, OK, I can still hit 19, it’s still gonna be a really good race,” Smith reflected. “My second prone felt sketchy and I missed two, and I kind of lost my edge bit in the last standing, too.”
Five days after he medaled in the sprint, Smith said felt relaxed before Thursday’s race.
“I felt like the last couple days went back to normal,” he said. “[But] you have that in the back of your mind, that if I have the perfect race I can medal, but I don’t think the pressure is what I did it. It’s just a day where I missed five.”
Canadian brothers Scott Gow and Christian Gow finished eight seconds apart in 63rd and 65th, respectively. Scott missed four (1+1+1+1) while Christian missed three with a clean last standing (1+1+1+0).
“I was hoping for 90-percent [shooting] or more, especially because it is such a nice day on the range. The wind is so marginal compared to what we have been dealing with,” Scott said. “Eighty percent is the minimum so I achieved the minimum. It is not necessarily a disappointment, but the goal was more 90 percent, so in that sense it is a little bit of a letdown.”
In two previous races in Kontiolahti, Scott, 24, placed 50th in the sprint and 52nd in the pursuit.
“It was kind of average for me,” he said. “No standout races where I shot 100 percent and was flying on the track, but I also didn’t have a total meltdown where I only hit half my targets and was totally dying. Overall I’m happy.”
For Christian, 21, it was his best result in two races at worlds after placing 73rd in the sprint.
“I struggled a bit this week shooting,” Christian said. “Today I just wanted to relax and hit some targets. All three misses were completely my fault, just overthinking the last shot two times. I was happy to come in on the last one and clean it no problem and get back into the rhythm. I’m hoping that good feeling back on the range, I can carry that forward to the relay for a good shooting day.”
In terms of how he’ll leave his first World Championships, he said a recent chat with his coach helped him put it in perspective.
“I hold myself to a really high standard,” Christian said. “Racing on the World Cup has been pretty challenging for me for that just because it is so tough to feel like you are accomplishing anything. Everyone is so fast and everyone is such a good shooter, there is no room for error at all.
“I am happy to be here,” he added. “Of course, I would like to come away with some results that later on I could look at and be super proud of. I am not going to be disappointed with what I have done so far. I am just trying to learn from it and make the most of it while I am here.”
— Topher Sabot contributed reporting
- 20 k individual
- 2015 IBU World Championships
- biathlon canada
- Brendan Green
- Christian Gow
- Emil Hegle Svendsen
- IBU World Champioships
- Kontiolahti 20 k
- Kontiolahti World Championships
- Leif Nordgren
- Lowell Bailey
- Martin Fourcade
- men's 20 k individual
- Nathan Smith
- Ole Einar Bjorndalen
- Ondrej Moravec
- Scott Gow
- Sean Doherty
- Sergey Semenov
- Tim Burke
- US Biathlon
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.