The relay hasn’t even happened yet, but after one day of racing in Hochfilzen, Austria, it’s clear which women’s team is on top of the biathlon world: at the moment it’s Germany, which pulled off a remarkable podium sweep in the women’s 7.5 k sprint.
It’s hard to say which member of that sweep was happier. Was it Franziska Hildebrand, who has led the team on many occasions but collected her first World Cup win today with clean shooting and a 15-second cushion to second place?
“I went on the first loop and thought ‘oh somehow my legs are heavy’,” Hildebrand told Germany’s ARD television crew. “I didn’t even feel that springy. When I heard on the first split time that it was alright, I thought ‘okay, it might feel bad, but somehow it seems to work well’. And then on the last lap I felt good again, my legs could still give something, and then I was overjoyed when I was leading in the finish.”
Hildebrand was one of the very first starters, in bib four. In the finish she raised her arms after catching her breath, sensing that she had done very well, but still was not sure what her performance would be worth with so many athletes still left to even start the race.
So when the win was secured and Hildebrand stepped onto the podium, she was beaming.
But second-place Maren Hammerschmidt seemed just as happy.
The second-to-last starter of the day, Hammerschmidt shot a clean race. Her coaches yelled split times as, all alone, she pushed hard up the final climbs and through a ski tunnel into the stadium, then crossed the line in second place.
Unlike Hildebrand, she didn’t need to wait to see if anyone else would dethrone her. This was real. With an incredulous look on her face she checked the video screen, before finally raising her fists to the fans, with many giving her a standing ovation.
Hammerschmidt has done less than a dozen World Cup race in her entire career, but the 26-year-old started the season off right with a third-place finish in the single mixed relay in Östersund, and has been building from there.
“Today everything fit together,” she told ARD.
And her family was even there to watch her get her first podium
“It’s an unusual situation (for me) with so many spectators,” she said. “My family is here, I talked to my father before the race so that we will meet up. Maybe this will now take a bit longer. I am just happy that so many people came (to cheer), I have never run in front of such an audience, this is just cool.”
And the third gleeful member of the podium? Miriam Gössner. Even younger, Gössner was a shooting star early in her career, competing in the cross-country relay at the 2010 Olympics where Germany won silver.
After winning three biathlon World Cups in 2013, Gössner seemed poised to replicate that success in biathlon at the 2014 Games. But a training accident led to a serious back injury and she could barely compete at all in 2014. She missed the Games and had a rough 2015 season as well.
After qualifying again for the first German national team this fall, her comeback now got rewarded with her best World Cup result since the 2013 season. Today, Gössner – a huge star and something of a celebrity personality – was back. She missed just one shot and skied the fourth-fastest course time to claim a spot on the podium.
“There were highs and lows, it was not easy, but in the end the fighting was well worth it,” she told ARD of her time with injuries.
Typically a dominant skier who sometimes struggles on the range, Gössner focused on her shooting on Friday.
“Definitely, it was important to me to get through the shooting alright,” she told ARD. “I skied a tactical race not really going all-out at first in order to still have some power on the last round, and I think that worked out for me. This is an easy track, so you really have to shoot well.”
Germany has long been strong in women’s biathlon, but this was the team’s first podium sweep since February 2011.
“We have a great atmosphere in the team,” Hammerschmidt told ARD.
It’s just wicked cool.”
Anais Bescond of France placed fourth, +23.4, and newcomer Lucie Charvatova of the Czech Republic fifth +24.6. And Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier finished sixth, giving the team even another finish to celebrate.
It was a remarkable breakthrough for the young Czech.
“Of course I’m really happy because I’m not so good a shooter,” the 22-year-old – who has competed in even fewer World Cups than Hammerschmidt – told Biathlonworld in a video interview. “I’m surprised…. I did cross-country skiing. I started biathlon two years ago. It’s a short time to do so well. I’m really happy.”
But few could focus on anything other than Germany.
“I don’t train directly with those girls but sweeping the World Cup podium is obviously no easy feat so – wow, respect!” Megan Tandy, a Canadian who is based in Germany, wrote in an email.
Tandy’s team wasn’t as happy with their handiwork. Tandy herself finished 56th with two penalties (+1:52) – inside the cutoff for the pursuit, but not what she had been looking for.
“It was all around mediocre, nothing was literally a disaster but I am not too happy either,” she wrote. “I was pretty mad at myself for missing my first standing shot today – it doesn’t happen very often, but I pulled the trigger before I was ready. I was not seeing the target when I accidentally let the shot go. I am glad that I was able to stay relaxed and be super controlled for the next 4 shots though – I really needed to hit those!”
Teammate Rosanna Crawford wrote that “Ski speed just doesn’t seem to be there for me right now,” but she also crashed and lost time, leaving her in 39th (+1:24) place despite having just a single penalty.
The race course was only a thin band of snow meandering through an otherwise completely green Pillersee valley. The manmade snow had frozen hard overnight, giving corners an icy base with loose corn snow on top. It wasn’t a good combination – and with a steep dropoff from the snow down to the grass below, skiers were wary of mistakes.
“The corners were pretty sketchy on two downhills!” Crawford wrote. “I did fall on my last loop. I was coming down the shorter downhill with a Swedish girl and she snow ploughed, so then I went into a skid and hit an ice patch and fell on my bum. With the loss of speed into the uphill and just how your legs feel after a crash I think I probably lost 20-25 seconds. Which is too bad. I would have been much happier with todays race had I avoided falling!!”
Julia Ransom finished 54th with one penalty and will join Crawford and Tandy in the pursuit, while Emma Lunder missed five shots and ended up 101st.
The Americans were also left wanting more. Susan Dunklee was the lone team member to qualify for Saturday’s pursuit, slotting in just ahead of Ransom in 53rd with four missed shots.
Annelies Cook narrowly missed the top-60 cutoff, finishing 65th (+2:04) with two penalties, while Clare Egan finished 83rd (+2:36) and Hannah Dreissigacker 99th (+3:38).
The women are hoping for better snow conditions and fewer crashes in the future: led by Dreissigacker and her team members, athletes from several countries had taken a stand in training and posed for a photo with a placard reading “Biathletes For Climate Action” to urge a resolution at an ongoing summit in Paris.
Two weeks ago several of the world’s best cross-country athletes had staged a similar call for action in Kuusamo, Finland.
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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.