Note: This article has been corrected to include American Susan Dunklee’s sixth-place pursuit finish last season in Antholz, Italy. On Friday in Pokljuka, Slovenia, Dunklee tied her best result last season and posted her best sprint finish in two years.
This season, several of the best cross-country skiers in the world, including Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, Kikkan Randall of the U.S. Ski Team, and Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, are taking a sabbatical while expecting the birth of their first children. If the skiing of France’s young mother Marie Dorin Habert is any indication, they really don’t need to worry about making successful comebacks.
For quite a while during the women’s 7.5 kilometer sprint at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Pokljuka, Slovenia, it looked like Germany could achieve another victory on Friday — just like the team did a week ago with a podium sweep of the sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria. But Dorin Habert had other plans and claimed the top spot on the podium with a winning time of 20:17.8 minutes.
Last March, the 29-year-old French biathlete was the big surprise of 2015 IBU World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, with two gold medals (in the sprint and pursuit) and two silvers (relay and mixed relay), which she achieved just half a year after the birth of her daughter Adele in September 2014. She returned to the World Cup last January.
On Friday, Dorin Habert added and first victory of the season (and third World Cup win) to her list of achievements, beating two Germans, Laura Dahlmeier — the winner of last week’s pursuit — by 1.1 seconds and Franziska Hildebrand, the winner of last week’s sprint, by 13.0 seconds.
Under sunny skies with calm, stable wind, just like the men raced in Thursday, all of the three women on the podium shot clean in the two-stage race, incurring no penalties.
Asked how she is managing her life with a 1-year-old while competing as a World Cup athlete, Dorin Habert explained in an English interview with German broadcaster ZDF: “It is very complicated to organize everything. I am lucky because my husband [retired French biathlete Lois Habert] can sometimes go with me. He is a commentator on TV for Eurosport France,” she said.
He and the baby joined her at the first IBU World Cup in Östersund, and last week, Adele returned home while Dorin Habert raced in Hochfilzen.
“This week she is with me in the hotel in Bled [Slovenia] with the nanny,” she explained. “So very nice, but very complicated to organize the travel and flights and everything.”
Dorin Habert started 35th on Friday and after two flawless stages, she left range for the second time trailing Dahlmeier, in bib 30, by 5.4 seconds.
“My standing [shooting] was very bad throughout all the start of the season,” Dorin Habert told ZDF. “[Today is] the first time that I am okay, so I’m very happy for that.”
Already skiing fast and with the added advantage of hearing her coaches call out split times to the leaders, Dahlmeier and Hildebrand, Dorin Habert pushed hard on the final loop to make up the deficit. Descending down a small ramp into the stadium, she entered the finishing straight with long, gliding steps while swinging her arms without using her poles, and crossed the line 13 seconds faster than Hildebrand (who started 20th) to take the lead. At the end of the day, nobody else out of 105 starters could catch her, although Dahlmeier came within 1.1 seconds at the finish.
“I am not surprised, but I am very happy,” Dorin Habert said of her win at an IBU press conference. She posted the third-fastest course time.
“I did a good job on the shooting range. I worked hard on my standing shooting,” she added. “It was hard on the skis, as we had a lot of races last week. I tried to be very concentrated on each target.”
Looking like the winner for a long time, Dahlmeier shot clean and skied the fourth-fastest overall course time.Despite missing out on another win by just over a second, the 22-year-old German was very satisfied with her performance.
“This is the first time this season that I’ve managed to shoot a ‘zero’ [no misses],” she told ZDF. “I’m extremely excited to be back on the podium. I knew it would be a close race, and that you really would have to deliver a ‘zero’ on the shooting range.
“It was a perfect day for me,” she said at the press conference. “Marie was first today, we will see what happens tomorrow. I am happy about my form. We are a little higher above sea level, and that’s stressful [on the body]. I am already looking forward to the Christmas break.”
Dahlmeier missed the World Cup opener in Östersund, Sweden, with a nagging cold. She’ll start Saturday’s pursuit 1 second behind Dorin Habert and 12 seconds ahead of Hildebrand, her teammate.
Like the other two podium finishers, Hildebrand, 28, took her time on the shooting range to hit all 10 targets. Her standing shooting time ranked 96th.
“I had to catch my breath after the second or third shot. From my point of view that was a great series, all very secure hits, everything in, everything white,” Hildebrand told ZDF. “That saved me today.”
But she more than made up for a few lost seconds on the range by avoiding the penalty lap and skiing fast, recording the fifth-ranked overall course time. From the last shooting to the finish she still lost about ten seconds to Dahlmeier, but for a reason: “I’m a little bit under the weather today,” she said. “I didn’t know how it would work. I felt during the race, especially on the last lap, that I was not quite as fresh anymore. But I think it was still a great race, and overall I’m really satisfied.”
Showing the depth of their team, all six of Germany’s starters finished in the top 15 with Maren Hammerschmidt in seventh, Franziska Preuss in ninth, Vanessa Hinz in 13th, and Miriam Gössner in 15th. Less than two years after leaving the 2014 Olympics without any women’s biathlon medals — and with several decorated athletes such as Magdalena Neuner and Andrea Henkel (now Andrea Burke) having retired in recent years — the team feels like it is on a good trajectory again.
“We trained hard. We are a good team, and we can push each other to become better,” Hildebrand said in the press conference.
“We have proven that we have arrived at the top again, and you always have to account for us,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “I hope we can keep this up all season, and then achieve our peak at the World Championships [in March].”
Fourth place went to Veronika Vítková of Czech Republic, who finished 16.4 seconds behind Dorin Habert, also with two clean stages. Her teammate and overall World Cup leader Gabriela Soukalová placed fifth (+25.2), as the best athlete who had to ski a penalty lap (with a single standing miss).
American Susan Dunklee placed sixth for her best sprint result in two seasons. She finished 30.6 seconds behind Dorin Habert and 17.6 seconds off the podium. She might have been able to make it had she avoided her penalty lap in the prone shooting, and was the second-best athlete with a penalty on Friday. She’ll start 31 seconds back in the pursuit.
Pursuit up next
The times back from Dorin Habert as the winner of the sprint carry over into the pursuit race on Saturday.
“Everyone can expect a very exciting race,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “The shooting range will be decisive again. You just have to shoot well, and then everything is possible, I am looking forward to it.
“Everything is possible,” she said in the press conference. “It is difficult to predict who will win, but I will fight for the first place in tomorrow’s competition.”
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Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.