This offseason, the avid mountaineer Laura Dahlmeier achieved one of her dream goals: she summited the steep face of the iconic 4,478-meter (14,692-foot) Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. On Saturday, she reached a lower elevation-yet-more-difficult summit, the top of the podium of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup 10-kilometer pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria.
After sitting out the first World Cup races in Östersund, Sweden, because of a nagging cold, the 22-year-old German biathlete gave a strong debut to her season in Friday’s sprint in sixth place. While she was out of the limelight, so to speak, her teammates pulled off a German podium sweep.
But Saturday, none of the other women in the 60-skier field could keep up with Dahlmeier on the icy and narrow pursuit course, cheered on by roughly 8,000 spectators in the arena and around the track.
“No drift Laura!” yelled one of her coaches, sprinting to keep up with a group of German athletes who led the field on a steep climb after the first shooting stage — meaning there was no need to compensate for wind on the range and that she should “zero” her aim on the center of the target.
She went on to clean the next two shooting stages as well, before missing a shot on the last standing. Regardless, she left the stadium after the 150-meter penalty lap with a 17-second lead.
On the final lap, Dahlmeier, who earned silver in the pursuit at 2015 IBU World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, held onto a less-than-comfortable lead over the athletes chasing her, and preserved 13.3 seconds of it to the finish.
“It was agonizing, but all starters sometimes have to torture themselves to the max on the round, and those who manage to do that best stand at the very top in the end,” she told German TV broadcaster ARD.
Informed that the color commentator nicknamed her a “fighting hog” and “fighting dwarf” during the races, which were meant as endearing terms, she laughingly accepted that description of her race style.
“I believe that’s pretty fitting,” she said. “I think you need to be a little bit like that [in this sport], otherwise it’s not possible.”
The victory was Dahlmeier’s first in a World Cup pursuit, after having won a mass start and sprint last season, as well as in five relays.
“Of course you have goals for a day like this,” she told ARD. “I knew my starting position was a good one. I wanted to be at the top, but of course one could not expect this. This is a dream, a perfect day for me!”
In 15 months, Hochfilzen will host the 2017 IBU World Championships, and Dahlmeier will likely associate good memories of the renovated arena with a brand-new facility building for athletes.
In yet another strong performance, only missing one shot in each of the two standing stages on the range, Maren Hammerschmidt — Germany’s least-experienced skier on Saturday in terms of World Cup starts — was able to defend her second-place finish from Friday’s sprint for yet another 1-2 German finish.
In a pre-race interview from the stands, Hammerschmidt’s twin sister and former biathlete Janin said she was “very nervous, but also very excited.” Asked what the sisters talked about Friday night following her surprising podium? “Just planning gifts for Christmas!” Janin said.
On the last two laps, Hammerschmidt, 26, was still going strong, and able to hold off a five-person chase comprised of her teammates and international veteran racers, posting the 14th-fastest course time.
“I wouldn’t have thought that it will work as well again today!” Hammerschmidt told ARD afterward. “I had a good preparation phase in Sjusjøen (Norway), and felt good knowing I could keep up. And if it then also works in shooting, you can race to the top. In Östersund it didn’t work out for me, but here the shooting range is just great.”
Informed that her twin sister predicted a top-10 finish before the race, Hammerschmidt said with a laugh, “Next time she can very well be a bit more optimistic! No, just kidding.”
Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic prevented another German podium sweep by dropping Friday’s winner Franziska Hildebrand on the final lap to place third (+18.5).
Hildebrand had shot well again and stayed at the top of the field for most of the race, at times by over 18 seconds. But two crucial misses in the standing stages sent her to the penalty lap, which opened the door for Dahlmeier, who only had to compensate for one miss in the final stage. Hildebrand pushed hard trying to keep up with Soukalova’s fresher legs on the final round, but the Czech prevailed and Hildebrand finished fourth just 6.5 seconds off the podium.
Soukalova was only five seconds behind Hammerschmidt at the finish, almost catching up to the German on the last stretch. Even so, she told the IBU that she was still very happy about her position.
“To be again in the top 10 is amazing. I enjoy skiing in yellow,” Soukalova said, referring to the overall World Cup leader’s jersey. “I tried to improve in a shooting and have clean targets, but sometimes you need a longer time to achieve this.”
Rounding out the top five was Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, who advanced all the way from her unusually late starting position of 30th, in large part by skiing the second-fastest course time only behind Kaisa Mäkärainen of Finland. Eckhoff might even have reached the podium, had she not missed her only 2 shots of the day in the last stage.
Friday’s third place finisher Miriam Gössner of Germany again demonstrated her strong skiing form by posting the fourth-best overall time on the icy loop. But four misses (0+1+2+1) made her lose contact with the top skiers on Saturday and she finished 15th (+1:07).
Dunklee Narrowly Misses Top 30
Starting the pursuit 53rd, 1:49 minutes behind Hildebrand as Friday’s winner, US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee raced to the 17th-fastest course time to help her finish 31st (+2:25.2).
“Of course I’d rather start near the front of a pursuit, but starting at the back like I did today can be a ton of fun,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “There is less pressure because there’s nowhere to go but up, plus I love chasing people down.”
She cleaned all of her targets on the first shooting, then missed one shot on each of the next three stages. The performance was still good enough to propel her up 22 spots from to 31st place, just five seconds behind Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic in 30th.
“My season has gotten off to a disappointing start,” Dunklee continued, “mostly due to some slight problems with timing in my standing shooting. Today was a great opportunity to regain confidence and practice implementing small changes I’ve made to fix the timing problems.”
Canada’s Rosanna Crawford started 39th, 1:25 behind Hildebrand. She began her race by cleaning the first prone stage, but then, like Dunklee, she also went on to miss one target in each of the next three stages. Her skiing times on the round deteriorated as the race went on, opening with the fourth-fastest time on the first loop, but closing with the 49th-ranked time on the final loop. Ultimately, Crawford improved slightly to finish 35th (+2:42).
Her Canadian teammate Julia Ransom, in her first season starting out on the World Cup, raced up 11 spots to place 43rd with three penalties (1+1+1+0). Megan Tandy missed five shots (3+1+0+1) and had to skate 750 extra meters, but ended up 48th, up eight spots from her starting position.
On Sunday the biathlon races in Hochfilzen will wrap up with the first relay of the season for the women and men. Asked about the chances of the presumed favorite, Germany, Dahlmeier didn’t say whether she would start the 4 x 6 k relay or take a break after two hard races following an illness.
“I have to see how I feel health-wise,” she said. “I have not competed in races for a long time now, and this was just intended as a first check of my form. I am surprised that it worked so brutally well already, but don’t want to risk anything and consult with the coaches and doctors first.”
With the deepest roster of the weekend so far, Germany should be able to cope either way.