KONTIOLAHTI, Finland — When Ekaterina Yurlova earned two bronze medals at the IBU Open European Championships in Otepää, Estonia, her dad told her: “OK, now your next step is World Championship,” she recalled.
That was just over a month ago. On Wednesday, the 30-year-old Russian pulled out a surprise win to answer her father’s prophecy: a gold at 2015 IBU World Championships in the 15-kilometer individual. She had started 93rd of 105 women in the race and ended up as the only one with perfect 20-for-20 shooting.
“I said to him, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Yurlova explained in a post-race press conference. “But now I think he’s not crazy.”
Yurlova herself looked stunned at the finish, holding her head and closing her eyes as it all set in at once. She had a great run throughout the evening race in front of 10,800 spectators — rising to third with a clean first shooting and the third-fastest course time on the first lap. After hitting all of her targets on her second stage, the Russian sat in fourth behind Italy’s Karin Oberhofer in first and the Czech Republic’s Gabriela Soukalova and Veronika Vitkova in second and third, respectively.
Fourteen seconds out of the lead after that first standing, she rose to second with a clean third stage. Soukalova, who started fourth and remained as a top contender from start to finish, cleaned those three initial stages as well, and leaving the range for her second-to-last lap, she was 15 seconds ahead of Yurlova.
The time gap went out the window when Soukalova came into the range for the last time and missed one for a one-minute penalty. While it took some time for Yurlova to tick off the laps 89 starters later, she ended up cleaning her fourth-straight stage to take the lead, 32.8 seconds ahead of Soukalova.
Ever since she finished, Soukalova had the time to beat in 41:55.4, holding off Finland’s local favorite Kaisa Mäkäräinen by 1.2 seconds. That time held up until Yurlova crossed the line 23.2 seconds faster in 41:32.2.
For the third time in her career, Yurlova cleaned an four-stage individual race. It was also her first podium and victory at the World Cup level. Her previous World Cup best was fifth in a mass start two seasons ago in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
“This is my first race of this World Championship and I wanted to be in podium,” she said. “It was my dream, but I never know that I can win.”
While Soukalova’s longtime lead at the finish didn’t stand, she said at the press conference that she was happy with silver. She and her team won gold earlier at these Championships in the mixed relay.
“It’s awesome and it was a really difficult season,” Soukalova said. “I didn’t think that I’m able to get a medal from this championship, but that’s nice.”
She wasn’t crushed when she was bounced from the lead by such a late starter. In fact, she didn’t realize she was in the hunt for gold until her last lap.
“I thought it’s gonna be really nice to [finish] in top five,” she said.
While Soukalova posted the fifth-fastest course time and Yurlova’s time ranked 19th (although her range time was notably quick in fifth), Mäkäräinen, who started 36th, was the fastest on course in the the five-lap race.
Hailing from the nearby city of Joensuu, where most of the World Championships accommodations are located fewer than 20 kilometers south of Kontiolahti, Mäkäräinen earned her first medal of the championships — bronze — 24.4 seconds off the win.
She cleaned prone but missed one on her first standing and another on her second prone before cleaning her final standing. The two misses put her two minutes back, and while she slipped into 11th after the third stage, she was back up to fifth leaving the range for the last time.
A fast last lap put her in contention with Soukalova for what looked to be the win at the time (well before Yurlova).
“In the first standing I had a lot of difficulties,” Mäkäräinen said in the press conference. “My legs were shaking right before I started to shoot. I missed the first target and I thought, ‘This is not going to work now,’ but I fight with every shot and I hit the last four. I was really lucky also there. And in the prone, I don’t really know what happened, maybe I was waiting too long, and the last shooting I don’t remember anything.”
She did remember hearing how far she was behind Soukalova going into the last lap. It was 27.2 seconds, to be exact.
“I never thought that I could be so close [at] the finish line,” Mäkäräinen said. “I knew that I did a good jump in a last loop so I wasn’t too sad about that.”
While she acknowledged she was slightly relieved with the medal (which she took by 0.4 seconds ahead of Italy’s fourth-place finisher Dorothea Wierer), Mäkäräinen added that wasn’t how she preferred to view her bronze.
“It was a new day today, new race, I did my job pretty OK,” she said. “I’m happy that I had a good day in the World Championships.”
Darya Domracheva of Belarus missed three on her first standing to slide into the 50’s overall after the second stage. By the third stage, she had recovered to 27th with another clean prone, but she had one more penalty on the last standing to finish 16th, ultimately 2:54.6 behind Yurlova.
Dunklee 12th for U.S.; Canada’s Heinicke Tallies Third-Straight Top 30
American Susan Dunklee started 30 seconds after Mäkäräinen in bib 37. While she missed two standing to fall back into the 30’s, Dunklee cleaned her next two stages and missed one on the last standing to end up 12th (+2:43.0). She had the sixth-fastest course time (4.5 seconds behind Soukalova, who was fifth fastest on course).
While Dunklee called the early misses, “not an auspicious way to start,” she explained that they took the pressure off. She thought, “It’s not gonna be a perfect race, but I can just focus on doing my normal thing,” she explained in a post-race interview.
After her first prone, she caught a glimpse of the board her coaches showed her out on course, which indicted where her shots landed outside the target. For the next prone, she made a couple corrections.
During one lap, Dunklee skied with Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier (in bib 21) and Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko (in bib 20), which she said helped her push her tempo.
“There were times when I wanted to back off a bit, but Laura was pulling and gapping me a bit and I was like, ‘I can’t let her get a gap because I’ll lose the draft,’ ” Dunklee explained.
Dahlmeier went on to place sixth (+40.5) behind Russia’s Daria Virolaynen in fifth (+37.9). Semerenko finished 15th.
With her best shooting of the week so far and best individual result at these World Championships, Dunklee was pleased to be feeling back on track.
“My biggest problem the last couple days has been just getting my head back on straight and finding the fun again and the normal race feeling,” she said. Last weekend, she placed 42nd in the sprint and 34th in the following pursuit.
“The sun came out late afternoon today, and while we were warming up there was a soft, golden light and it made me really relaxed and happy,” Dunklee added. “I felt excited about the start of the race.”
Regardless of whether Wednesday’s result is enough to qualify Dunklee for the 30-person mass start on Sunday, she said she was happy. “I’m glad to have had a good one,” she said.
“While we were warming up there was a soft, golden light and it made me really relaxed and happy. I felt excited about the start of the race.” — Susan Dunklee, 12th
Canada’s Megan Heinicke tallied her third-consecutive top 30 of the week, placing 21st (+3:23.3) for her World Championships career best. She hit 19 straight shots before missing her final target.
“I’ve hit 20-for-20 twice already this year so I feel like there was 15 thoughts going through my head, like, slow motion during the last shot,” she reflected. “I’m so, so happy with 19, but I’m pretty sure I missed the last shot because I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to hit 20!’ ”
During the race, Heinicke wasn’t sure it was going so well. On her first lap, she heard her team’s staff tell her she needed to ski faster.
“I was like, ‘Oh gosh, this is going to be a disaster,’ and then actually, I kind of felt better lap by lap,” she said less than a week after recovering from a monthlong illness.
“I was prepared for way worse,” Heinicke said of World Championships overall so far. “I fought hard out there. I really delivered what I was able to. There’s always the ‘if’ thought: if I was in better shape and skiing four-percent faster, but I mean, I’m happy with it.”
Dunklee’s U.S. teammate, Annelies Cook was on track for a breakthrough performance after cleaning her first three stages. The third starter, she found herself in second after the third shooting behind Soukalova and at the end of the day, her time leaving the range for the second-to-last lap ranked sixth.
However, in the final standing, Cook missed four shots — the first, second, fourth, and fifth — to fall toward the back of the pack. She ended up 47th (+5:26.8) with four penalties.
“My heart is a little broken,” Cook said afterward. “I blew it. I just wanted it so bad and I tried too hard. Classic case of wanting it too much. Everything else felt easy and relaxed. I tried to stay relaxed the whole race, not come into the range too gassed, and I think the conditions were really good today so that made it a lot easier …
“Sometimes biathlon is really mysterious,” she added. “You don’t know what makes one [race] good from the next, but the last stage was just bad. I was too tense and I was just trying to hard.”
World Cup rookie Clare Egan, also of the U.S., notched her second-best result of her career in 51st (+5:45.7) after back-to-back clean stages for her first prone and first standing. She went on to miss two in the third stage and two more in the final standing.
“’I’m still learning, especially with the standing, so any time I can even just miss one in standing is great,” Egan said. “My best World Cup place coming into world champs was 73rd, and I’ve done way better than that so far so I’m really psyched.”
In placing 40th in the sprint last Saturday, she qualified for last the pursuit, where she placed 52nd. While Wednesday marked another top result for the 27-year-old Egan, she said it was her brother’s presence that made her day.
“My brother Graham flew in today from New York so he was out there on the course with an American flag,” Egan said. “That was my favorite part of the race.”
Also for the U.S., Hannah Dreissigacker placed 67th (+6:49.7) with five penalties (2+1+1+1).
“Ones are OK, twos are bad,” Dreissigacker said of the number of misses per stage. “That’s sort of where my standard is for myself. If I had [missed one each time], I would be, like, not a good day, but not bad. But five, I mean, that’s too many.”
She described feeling flat during the race and attributed it to possibly hunger.
“I don’t think I ate enough because it’s such a late-in-the-day race,” she said of the 6:15 p.m. start. “I was getting kind of hungry before the race and I felt like I kind of ran out of energy. I’m not sure I timed that quite right. I should have known better…
“For some reason, I’m just sort of struggling a little bit here in general,” Dreissigacker added. “Today was tough because I actually felt OK for the most part. The last three stages I missed the last shot every time, which is sort of a classic biathlon mistake. I think I guess I must not have followed through enough.”
Two Canadians had five penalties as well: Audrey Vaillancourt (2+0+1+2) and Julia Ransom (2+1+1+1). While Vaillancourt placed 79th (+8:05.3), Ransom in her first World Championships was 84th (+8:23.9).
“It’s just a bad week on the range,” Vaillancourt said. “It’s hard to start with two misses, and you’re like, ‘Nice, now I have three more bouts to go.’ ”
Typically a strong shooter, she added that sometimes that’s the way biathlon goes.
“Some weeks you just don’t get that feeling of, it’s easy,” she said.
And Vaillancourt didn’t think her off week had anything to do with the stakes at World Championships.
“I’ve been fighting all year to get my place here. It’s not like I’ve been thinking of only World Champs all year,” the 23 year old said. “To me, it doesn’t really make a difference if I do super well on the World Cup or super well at World Champs because it’s not like I’m really close to a top eight.”
After the pursuit three days earlier, in which she placed 57th, Ransom explained she focused on getting into a “better headspace” for the 15 k.
“I was so overwhelmed and I was excited, but also really distracted [during the pursuit] so I kind of brought it together and I really wanted to focus on pacing,” she said. “We don’t do a lot of individuals; this is definitely the hardest one I’ve ever done, and I think I found a happy medium with the pacing. Maybe a little too easy, but I’m learning.”
Like several North Americans, she struggled with her first prone and had two early penalties.
“The wind had changed on me, which I wasn’t expecting,” Ransom said of her first shooting. “I [made] a big correction for prone … I’ve been struggling with standing the last couple weeks, so I’m glad I kind of brought it back to a half-decent level. It’s a work in progress. These World Champs have been an interesting experience.”
Perhaps the most disappointed North American of the day was Rosanna Crawford, a medal hopeful, who finished 87th (+9:05.1) with eight penalties (2+2+2+2).
“It was really bad,” she said.
Before World Championships, she and her boyfriend Brendan Green, also on the Biathlon Canada national team, discussed the worst that could happen in Kontiolahti, Crawford explained.
“The worst that could happen is a really bad race,” she continued. “It’s not that bad in the scheme of life, but this is something I’ve dedicated my whole life to and to not achieve my goals is disappointing. I feel like I’m letting down everyone who’s helped me get here, and I know I’m capable of so much more.”
On Tuesday, Crawford watched a Finnish TV interview with U.S. cross-country skier Kikkan Randall.
“Kikkan was talking about how disappointed she was with the Olympics, and yeah, you set these big goals, but then you also need to set the goals of being able to leave a championship happy,” Crawford said. “I don’t think I did that. I didn’t set those goals and even if I had, I didn’t achieve them. I didn’t do what I know I’m capable of today, and I really wanted another chance in the mass start and now that’s not gonna happen.”
The final race of World Championships, the 12.5 k women’s (and 15 k men’s) mass start includes the top-15 ranked competitors on the World Cup circuit with 15 others who do exceptionally well at worlds. The sprint and pursuit carry a hefty weight (with the sprint factoring into the start of the pursuit), and the individual races are the last ones to count toward the mass start.
Based on a provisional start list, Heinicke and Dunklee have qualified for Sunday’s mass start in 26th and 30th, respectively.
- 15 k individual
- 2015 IBU World Championships
- Annelies Cook
- Audrey Vaillancourt
- biathlon canada
- Clare Egan
- Darya Domracheva
- Dorothea Wierer
- Ekaterina Yurlova
- Gabriela Soukalova
- Hannah Dreissigacker
- Julia Ransom
- Kaisa Makarainen
- Kontiolahti 15 k
- Kontiolahti World Championships
- Laura Dahlmeier
- Megan Heinicke
- Rosanna Crawford
- Susan Dunklee
- US Biathlon
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.