The international biathlon season started in earnest on Saturday, with Sjusjøen, Norway, hosting most of the top teams as well as a deep domestic field for 7.5 and 10 k sprint races.
In the women’s 7.5 k, Tiril Eckhoff just missed out on being able to give the home team a win. She finished 3.1 seconds behind a clean-shooting Dorothea Wierer of Italy, meaning that shooting ten for ten would have likely given her the victory.
“I am very pleased with how I did the shooting,” Eckhoff told Norway’s NRK broadcaster, according to a translation. “Especially the prone series. That’s something I can take forward with me.”
Last season in this race, Wierer also won with perfect shooting. In 2014 Eckhoff was also second, but with two penalties and 37 seconds behind.
The top Norwegian is closing the gap.
“I know I am stronger,” Eckhoff told NRK. “So time will tell whether I am as strong throughout the season.
Germany’s Maren Hammerschmidt was a surprise third place, with clean shooting like Wierer. Olga Abramova of Ukraine placed fourth, Franziska Preuss of Germany fifth, and Krystyna Guzik of Poland sixth, all with one penalty.
For several teams, the results will add to curiosity about roster choices for the first World Cup. Germany, for instance, had already selected Preuss, Laura Dahlmeier, and Franziska Hildebrand for the World Cup, but leaves three spots open. Hammerschmidt’s podium was unexpected. Vanessa Hinz and Karoline Horchler, who placed 14th and 16th, are also in the running, while former star Miriam Gössner missed five shots but with quick skiing was able to stay in the top 30.
Norway’s favorites struggled on the shooting range as well, with only Kaia Wøien Nicolaisen, not a usual member of the World Cup team, joining Eckhoff in the top ten. Fanny Horn Birkeland (formerly Welle-Strand Horn) missed four shots to place 20th, and Synnøve Solemdal also missed four to land 32nd.
Susan Dunklee led the American team in 21st place, +1:40.3. She was actually leading the race as well, after cleaning the prone stage.
But then she missed four shots in standing and dropped back in the penalty loop.
“My major focus in summer training was to improve my shooting speed and it has taken a big step,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “Normally I stick with the same race shooting cadence that I use in training but today I may have been better off to reset mid-stage after missing a few targets… I missed this race stuff during the summer; it’s good to be back at it. My ski shape feels a little sharper than it usually does in November.”
Dunklee’s teammate Annelies Cook placed 25th with two penalties just 3.7 seconds further back.
“The race was fun and hard today,” she wrote. “I am satisfied with how it went today, nothing was perfect so there is room to improve but I didn’t feel as far behind where I want to be as I have in the past. It was great to practice a ‘mini World Cup’ to have a soft entrance into the racing season. I have to say that I actually only felt nervous about two minutes before my start, so that was kind of nice having a more relaxed confident feeling leading into the race. I wanted to remember that it is just racing and is supposed to be something we do because it is fun to race.”
Canada’s Megan Tandy placed 23rd, +1:41.3, with a single missed shot.
“I was satisfied with shooting 9/10 in somewhat windy conditions, I felt focused and stuck with my shooting plan,” she explained. “Skiing was hard and I don’t think today’s ski performance reflects what I expect from myself this season.”
The Canadian team is not traveling to Europe until later this week when they will go straight to Östersund, Sweden, for the start of the World Cup.
Tandy, however, has been based in Europe already so made the trip to Norway on her own.
“It is always more stressful to be alone than in a team,” she wrote in an email. “I need to cover all of my own expenses and be organized (book my own flights, rental car etc.) However, I am well taken care of here!! My home coach, Knut Tore Berland, lives in Lillehammer so I actually have my own coach here to support me. I have known his family for almost 10 years and look forward to visiting them every November… The USA Team is taking care of my race skis which I really appreciate!”
Like Cook, she appreciated the lower-key start to the season, even though most of her World Cup competitors were actually already in the field in Sjusjøen.
“I feel like there was a lot less pressure here, especially because in the back of my head these are training races,” she wrote. “The stakes will certainly be higher [in Östersund] but I am sure that racing here will help me start the first World Cup feeling more confident and relaxed.”
Tandy moved to a new part of Germany this year, so her training hasn’t been the same as usual. She said that it was good to check back in with the field and get race time instead of just time trials.
“My on-snow preparation will be shorter than usual this year as I will travel back to Germany for 5 days so I can have a last visitation with my son before joining the Canadian Team in Östersund in time for the Individual race,” she explained. “This means that I haven’t tapered for these races, they are just integrated in my training plan and my goal here is to have a great week of snow training and use the races as experience and good hard sessions… I feel really glad to have the opportunity to race here.”
For the United States, Clare Egan placed 84th (+5:26.4) with seven penalties.
Racing continues on Sunday with mass starts, but the American women confirmed that they did not plan to compete.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.