KONTIOLAHTI, Finland – While many men complained of the blustery Finnish weather in Saturday’s 2015 IBU World Championships sprint, they would soon become thankful for their race conditions after the start of the women’s sprint. Just half an hour before the start of the race — a 7.5-kilometer sprint — the wind strengthened and was joined heavy snow, making for blizzard-like conditions on the second day of competition in Finland.
While the weather did its best to subdue the competitors, it was Marie Dorin Habert of France who landed on top of the podium. She earned her first-ever World Championships gold in addition to a first-career victory after cleaning prone and missing one shot in standing to notch a time of 22.16.8. Behind her was Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak of Poland, the only competitor to clean both prone and standing. The Polish biathlete, whose silver medal is the first podium of her career, finished 9.6 seconds back. Rounding out the podium was Valj Semereko of Ukraine, who missed one in standing to cross the line 19.7 seconds behind Harbert.
Saturday began with numerous expectations, the most popular of which was a predicted showdown between hometown-favorite Kaisa Mäkäräinen and overall IBU World Cup leader Darya Domracheva of Belarus. Mäkäräinen, who started with bib 6, battled the worst of the weather and faced a slow course that had barely been skied-in ahead of her. When she reached the first shooting stage, the 32 year old had posted the fastest course time on the first loop. But her lead would soon be gone as the Finnish skier missed three shots to the audible shock of the crowd. Mäkäräinen eventually missed two more shots in standing to finish 35th.
Next up was Dormacheva in bib 10. The Belarusian had a promising start after missing one shot in prone and skiing the fourth-fastest course time, but eventually succumbed to the conditions in standing where she missed four of five shots to ultimately finish 25th.
With the two favorites out of contention, an opportunity was presented to the rest of the field. Semerenko, in bib 4, had already finished and posted the time to beat after notching the fastest range and shooting times of the day. Habert, in bib 16, wasn’t far behind Domracheva and chased the Belarusian. In the process, she posted the fastest cumulative time in the first lap. Her second and third laps were the second and third fastest of the day — enough to move her past Semerenko.
Meanwhile, Nowakowska-Ziemniak was three starters behind the Frenchwoman. Where she failed to match Habert in course time she overcame in range speed, earning the seventh overall ranked time on the day. After she cleaned the second round of shooting, the Pole worked to make full use of her advantage. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough to overcome Habert.
According to Habert, she knew before the race that a podium was likely but never expected to take her first individual gold in the 7.5 k sprint.
“I didn’t expect it was possible for me” she said in a press conference. “I wanted to be on the podium, but to win I think that it’s too hard for me, but it was done so it was nice.”
Habert explained that she didn’t mind the conditions, but acknowledged that her favorable view of the strong wind and blowing snow was likely due to her victory.
“It was hard conditionsn but it’s right for me so I’m happy for these hard conditions,” she said. “It was hard on the track because of the snow and shooting range because of the wind, but today it was nice for me.”
The French biathlete gave birth in September. While she trained during her pregnancy, Habert said that she was uncertain as to how she was able to come back for such a successful season.
“Maybe I’m stronger before,” she explained. “I don’t have an answer of this progress, but I’m happy I’ve progressed.”
In second place, Nowakowska-Ziemniak said that she believed the 2015 World Championships would be her last prior to her podium. With Saturday’s silver medal, however, the Polish biathlete said that the joy of being on the podium might convince her to stay in the sport longer.
“I didn’t win, but I’m sure that I am the most happy person today here,” she said in a press conference. “It’s an amazing moment here in my career.”
Two of Nowakowska-Ziemniak’s teammates also finished in the top 10, with Krystyna Guzik in fifth and Magdalena Gwizdon in seventh. The bronze medalist explained that although the Polish women faced a hard season where results failed to live up to expectations, she was proud of her teammates for performing when it mattered.
“As a team, we’ve got many problems during this season with the shape but I’m triple happy that the whole team showed today that we are really strong and we deserve to be this high in the world,” she said. “I’m very happy for myself and for my teammates also.”
The sprint’s bronze medalist, Semerenko, has been on the podium four previous times this season and said that her main objective on Saturday was to achieve a solid position for Sunday’s pursuit.
“This is indeed a very good season for me,” Semerenko said. “I’m very happy about this race although I didn’t expect to be on the podium today, but I wanted to be close for pursuit race.”
Canada’s Heinicke Skis to 23rd; North Americans Left Wanting More
The snow and wind took a hard hit on the North Americans as they battled the elements to ski and shoot to the best of their abilities.
Canada’s Megan Heinicke was ultimately the top finisher in 23rd after missing one in prone and cleaning standing. Although she had the 78th-fastest course time, Heinicke was able to notch a top-30 result with precise shooting and the 18th-fastest range time.
“I was really happy with the shooting,” Heinicke said in a post-race interview. “Standing I was really satisfied with because I waited and I took the shots in the right moment. Usually standing shooting in the wind is something I’m not super confident about, and I feel like it’s been a weakness over the last years, so I’m really satisfied with the standing today.”
Heinicke was originally slated to start World Championships on Thursday in Canada’s mixed relay, but sat out to continue recovering from illness in Germany.
“I have been sick for 17 days out of the last 30, and I have two more days of antibiotics to go so I flew in late and didn’t do the mixed relay,” she explained.
The 26 year old said she entered Saturday’s sprint with no result-oriented goals, but instead was focused on shooting well and skiing smart. She was also aided by the earlier success of her teammate Nathan Smith, who was the first Canadian male to earn a World Championships medal after placing second in the preceding 10 k sprint.
“I was getting ready for the race and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna cry, just focus on your own race,’ ” Heinicke said. “I feel like we have a few athletes that have been flirting with the podium so it’s just really, really amazing to have someone do it.”
Behind Heinicke in 32nd was teammate Rosanna Crawford. The 26 year old, who was one of the first starters in bib 5, just ahead of Mäkäräinen, dealt with the worst of the blowing snow but managed to notch the 10th-fastest split in the first loop after cleaning prone. It was in standing that Crawford ran into trouble, ultimately missing three shots and losing precious time.
“I knew it was going to be the hardest in standing,” Crawford said in an interview. “Maybe I accepted defeat before I even got to the range.”
Once in the penalty lap, Crawford explained that the loop was incredibly slow due to the new snow and lack of skiers ahead of her.
“The penalty loop was awful because nobody was had been skiing in it,” she said. Crawford added that while she faced an “uphill battle” in her quest to qualify for the World Championships final mass start next weekend, she is looking forward to racing again.
The next North American and top U.S. biathlete in the women’s sprint was World Cup newcomer Clare Egan. A late starter, Egan said she benefitted from the break in snowfall that occurred midway through the race. However, the break in weather wasn’t the only reason for her success. According to the former University of New Hampshire skier, the steep hills on the 2.5 k course suited her skiing and aided her in qualifying for her first World Cup-level pursuit.
“[The course] has a really big climb in it and I pushed up that climb,” Egan said. “I’ve been working a lot with our coaches since we’ve been here on how to ski the flats and I think I did a pretty good job with what we’ve been working on.”
Egan missed two shots in both prone and standing, but said that compared to her previous World Cup shooting record, Saturday’s performance was an improvement. Prior to the World Championships sprint her previous best result was 73rd in a Nove Mesto sprint earlier this season.
“I wish I would have shot a little better, but honestly, I think I missed four in standing in both the other World Cup sprints I’ve done. Today I only missed two so that was an improvement and hopefully I’ll keep improving,” she explained.
Just two places behind Egan was veteran U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee. The 29 year old has consistently placed in the top 30 and is no stranger to the top 10. In the sprint, Dunklee explained she lost confidence in the shooting range. She missed one in prone and two in standing, and marked the 101st-ranked range time of 103 finishers.
“I’m really bummed,” Dunklee said after the race. “I spent more time on the range than maybe ever. I was one shot at a time because it was so windy and so gusty. I just kind of lost my rhythm and flow and confidence, especially in the standing.”
While Dunklee acknowledged the difficult weather was a factor in her shooting, she said it was a part of racing that every competitor had to deal with. According to Dunklee, she entered the sprint with the goal of performing at the level she’s been at in the 2015 season, but hoped for something even better.
“I did want it, maybe a little bit too badly,” she said. “That’s the curse.”
First-time World Championships competitor Julia Ransom of Canada cleaned prone to rank 13th after the first shooting but fell to 52nd position after missing three in standing. She said she was very pleased with her result, which was the best of her World Cup career.
“I’m pumped. It’s the first pursuit I’ve made on World Cup and it’s been a really big jump from IBU Cup to World Cup so I’m happy,” Ransom said.
Ransom is no stranger to Kontiolahti. In 2012, she earned a silver medal in the Junior World Championships pursuit. Although this year is her first senior World Championships, Ransom said that the experience hasn’t been too different from the World Cups she’s attended.
“It’s feeling relatively the same. Nothing too exciting, but racing at night is fun, different. We’re going to bed at midnight, waking up at 9:30 and 10,” she said. “It’s the same faces just different names.”
Finishing 61st, U.S. biathlete Hannah Dreissigacker was one spot away from qualifying for Sunday’s 10 k pursuit. Dreissigacker said that she was interested to review her shooting with her coaches, as she was surprised the wind affected her so negatively.
“It was windy so I’m sure that affected me. Normally in prone, I’m not intimidated by the wind. I take clicks and I’m confident,” she explained.
Teammate Annelies Cook finished 68th and said her skiing felt much better than it had all season. At the same time, she explained that she was disappointed in her shooting. “I felt good skiing, but I let myself down in my shooting,” she said. “I definitely struggled a lot in standing with the wind, and I made a careless mistake in prone, accidentally pulling the trigger when I didn’t mean to.”
Canadian Audrey Vaillancourt ended the day in 77th and said that while the day was bad for her, she was read to move on to the next race.
“When I came into prone it was like a tornado. Prone is not that bad normally. I don’t think I clicked enough. It was very, very hard today,” she said.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.