KONTIOLAHTI, Finland — Perfect shooting wins the race, at least that was the adage that summed up the women’s 12.5-kilometer mass start on the final day of 2015 IBU World Championships.
Valj Semerenko, a 28-year-old Ukrainian with an Olympic gold medal from last year’s relay and multiple World Cup podiums, sat quietly in the pack throughout most of Sunday’s mass start. She didn’t charge to the front on the first lap, like Darya Domracheva of Belarus did. Instead, she positioned herself in the top 20 of 30 starters and waited for natural opportunities to move up.
Opportunities like the first prone stage, where she and 17 others cleaned on a bluebird, windless afternoon. Semerenko moved into 11th, 15.3 seconds back from Domracheva in first.
While the Belarusian set off for another blistering lap, leaving the range 8 seconds ahead of Russia’s Ekaterina Yurlova in second, Semerenko squeezed into the top 10 before the second shooting.
There, she cleaned again, along with nine others, including Domracheva. As Domracheva set out again in the lead, 6.5 seconds ahead of Russia’s Daria Virolaynen, it seemed like the race could very well continue along the same lines — with Domracheva jetting off the front.
That is, until Domracheva missed two in the third stage and dropped to eighth.
Behind her, Semerenko led a chase pack of five into the range, with the Czech Republic’s Gabriela Soukalova, Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand, Virolaynen, and Germany’s Franziska Preuss, respectively.
The Ukrainian cleaned the first standing stage the fastest, heading out on her fourth lap two seconds ahead of Hildebrand and Preuss, and three seconds ahead of Soukalova — all of which cleaned as well. Domracheva was left with two penalty loops, emerging 36 seconds behind them.
Soukalova, Preuss and Semerenko took turns leading over the penultimate lap, while Hildebrand fell off the pace. In the final standing, Semerenko hit the last of her targets to complete her perfect 20-for-20 day, sending a clear message to the 29 women behind her. She left the range 19.1 seconds ahead of Preuss, who had her first penalty of the race in that stage, and Hildebrand cleaned her fourth stage to move back into third.
“I left the shooting range with Franziska Hildebrand and I thought, ‘Oh god, it’s going to be a hard loop,’ because she’s really in shape at the moment,’ ” Preuss recalled in a post-race press conference. “When I had a look back, I thought, ‘There are much more athletes now.’ I just wanted to give everything.”
While Preuss pushed to close the gap on the last lap, she couldn’t quite reach Semerenko, who finished 6.2 seconds ahead of her for her first World Championships title in 34:32.9.
“I was thinking that when I win, I’m gonna take the Ukrainian flag,” Semerenko told the IBU through a translator. “But when I got to the end with all the people chasing me, I just forgot with all the stress.”
She added that she was grateful for the support of her sister, Vita Semerenko, who has been sidelined this season with an injury.
“I would like to thank her for her support here, and actually she was at the track at the last hundred meters to give me the flag, but I only noticed her when I passed her,” Semerenko said with a laugh.
“I’m the champion and I’m so happy about it,” she said in the press conference. “It is important not only for me but also for my country. I’m full of emotion.”
On the final lap, Italy’s Karin Oberhofer, Domracheva and Soukalova all caught Hildebrand, overtaking her before 11.8 k.
By the finish, Oberhofer dug deep to hold off Domracheva for bronze, finishing 2.1 seconds ahead of her and 12.6 seconds behind Semerenko. The Italian had rebounded from two early penalties — one on each prone stage.
“I had wonderful skis, I tried to do my best and I’m very, very happy,” Oberhofer said through a translator.
While Domracheva took fourth (+14.7) with the fastest overall course time, Soukalova was another 11.5 seconds behind in fifth (+26.2). Hildebrand finished sixth, 5.5 seconds later, and Germany put three in the top eight with Laura Dahlmeier in eighth (+39.9).
For Preuss, the silver matched her World Cup career best, in which she placed second in the mass start in January in Ruhpolding, Germany. On Friday, she helped the German women’s team achieve gold in the relay.
“The week started really good for me with my [21st] birthday [on March 11], then the gold medal in the relay,” Preuss said. “It was absolutely amazing to stand on top of the podium and unbelievable, and today, the second individual medal in the mass start, it’s really amazing.”
Dunklee 20th, Heinicke 24th
Susan Dunklee narrowly qualified for the mass start in the 30th and final spot available after winning a tiebreaker with Finland’s Mari Laukkanen (Dunklee had the single-best individual result between of the two of them in 12th at these World Championships).
Considering that, she was grateful to have made it.
“It was kind of like an icing-on-the-cake moment,” Dunklee said after the race. “I’ve done what I needed to do at these championships, now I can kind of relax and have fun and see what happens. Sometimes I have my best races when I’m in that position. That didn’t happen today, but it could have.”
Dunklee finished 20th, 2:01 behind Semerenko, with five penalties: one on each prone stage, two in the first standing and another in the final standing.
“I haven’t seen where my shots went yet, but I have a feeling I had a couple split-outs,” she explained. “I could’ve sworn one of the standing I had a paddle quiver, but not fall. … I had a couple that felt like good shots, but I don’t know what happened. You miss one, it puts you right away toward 20th place coming into the second shooting, and then if I keep missing one, that holds steady. I knew [I needed to] not miss one if I wanted to move up.”
While the 29-year-old Dunklee left the range in 23rd after the last stage, she skied the fifth-fastest course time overall to finish in the top 20. She ended World Championships with two individual top-20 results, eighth place in the mixed relay, and 12th in the women’s relay.
“I always set really high goals for myself,” Dunklee said of her season overall. “I got a few top 10’s this year. I was hoping for more for sure. I was hoping to get to them earlier in the season, too. I’ve made some huge improvements with my ski technique. My shooting percentage I think has been a little more consistent, and now I’ve got a lot of things I know I want to work on as soon as summer rolls around.”
There is still one more stop on the World Cup circuit, with a sprint, pursuit and mass start in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, this coming Thursday through Sunday.
Canadian Megan Heinicke qualified for Sunday’s race as well in 26th, for the second mass start in her career. She competed in her first two months ago at the Ruhpolding World Cup, where she placed 23rd.
“When I was zeroing today, I had to look at my coaches like, ‘Um, prone, prone, standing, standing, right?’ ” she said of the shooting order.
Heinicke got that down, hitting 19 of 20 targets with a single prone miss. One of nine women who shot 95 percent or better, she finished 24th, 2:22.2 behind the winner.
“That was a pretty awesome end to the season,” Heinicke said. “That was my last race and I had really good shooting again with just one miss.”
In the last eight days of individual racing, Heinicke tallied four top-30 results (including the mass start), with 21st in the 15 k individual, 23rd in the sprint and 28th in the pursuit. In all of those races and the women’s relay on Friday, she hit at least 90 percent of her targets.
“I guess I had really high expectations shooting-wise because I’ve been shooting so well,” Heinicke said of the mass start. “Skiing, I know to expect it to feel hard. We had really great skis this week so I was kind of trusting the skis to be good, and I just wanted to try to ski smart … and not kill myself the first few runs up the hill and make sure I was kind of settled enough for good shooting.”
Heading into her last lap, after cleaning her third-straight stage, she glanced at the scoreboard and saw that she was 20th.
“I was like, top 20, is it possible?” the 26 year old said. “… Mostly I was like, ‘It’s your last race, be ready to fight. Just kill yourself if you have to.’ ”
Despite a long bout with illness leading up to World Championships, which derailed some of her skiing fitness, Heinicke explained she was excited about the gains she’d made in shooting.
“This year has been a really big step forward for me in terms of shooting and consistency, so every time this keeps happening, I’m just … super happy, super relieved, and really, really motivated for next year,” she said. “I feel like I’m at maybe 60 percent of my potential skiing, with health and training things, so I’m like, ‘Oh, if I have a healthy season next year, if I can maintain the shooting, then I’m just really motivated about the potential.’ ”
She was also inspired by performances she’d witnessed by her teammate, Rosanna Crawford, as well as Dunklee.
“I’m watching … what they’re able to achieve, and I’m just like, ‘OK, I want to fight to be there, too,’ ” Heinicke said.
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.