On Thursday, Russia’s Olga Podchufarova picked up her first World Cup win in the 7.5 k sprint in Antholz, Italy.
On Saturday she led into the final stage of the 10 k pursuit, but fell apart on the range, missing three shots in the final bout.
There to pick up the pieces was teammate Ekaterina Yurlova, who shot a near-perfect race. She started third after joining Podchufarova on the sprint podium, then missed one shot in the first stage. But after that she hit target after target, picking up places along the way until she left the range the last time in first place.
“The last shooting was so unbelievable for me,” Yurlova told IBU news. “There was a strong wind, but my amunitions were just flying into the target! When I shot clean, I saw that Doro [Wierer] and Olga [Podchufarova] were in the penalty loop, I told myself that this was my chance…. so I just took all my power and did it.”
There could be more surprising athletes to see atop the podium; Yurlova was the World Champion in the 15 k individual in 2015.
But this was actually her first regular-season victory, something that had eluded her so far.
“I didn’t think I would be again on the podium,” Yurlova said in the post-race press conference. “I didn’t prepare for the podium. I was thinking just that I need to do my job good, good skiing, good shooting, that’s enough.”
Joining her was another woman who didn’t expect to be there – yet whose name didn’t cause surprise, either. Selina Gasparin of Switzerland is a World Cup winner who also won her country’s first Olympic biathlon medal, in Sochi in 2014.
But while Yurlova was winning World Championships last season, Gasparin was sitting out. She took a year off to have her first child.
After returning this season she had been yet to hit the podium, and after finishing 16th in the sprint it didn’t seem likely in the pursuit either. Yet Gasparin had only a single penalty, like Yurlova’s coming in the first stage, and skied the second-fastest course time of the day, moving up to second place by passing Wierer in the final few hundred meters.
“This has been a mega-beautiful race,” Gasparin told Swiss broadcaster SRF. “In the beginning I shot a miss and thought ‘oh no, not again.’ In a pursuit I am usually behind. And I was pretty annoyed by the miss, because I lost contact [to the top]… And then in standing I though to myself ‘no matter how long I stand here, I just have to hit.’ And yeah, I didn’t really know where I was with regards to split times. Thank God I didn’t know during the last shooting that it could be enough for the podium when they shot misses.”
She finished twelve seconds behind Yurlova and six ahead of Wierer, who had led early in the race before accumulating two penalties in the third stage and one in the fourth.
“I started good but two mistakes was too much,” Wierer said in the press conference. “In the last standing, I tried to shot fast and zero and it did not work.”
For Gasparin, shooting well under pressure and edging Wierer at the finish was a particularly meaningful way to get her first post-baby podium.
“This second place is as valuable as my victories in sprint [in Annecy, France, and Hochfilzen, Austria, during the 2013-14 season],” Gasparin told Swiss media. “In the pursuit you have to get the result in a fight woman versus woman. There it’s important to keep your nerves in check.”
Tiril Eckhoff of Norway placed fourth (+48.0) and Krystyna Guzik of Poland fifth (+51.9) after starting 20th and 26th, respectively. Skiing fast, they moved up despite three misses by Eckhoff and two by Guzik.
Susan Dunklee, the lone American in the pursuit, finished 17th, also moving up considerably after earning bib 37 in the sprint. She had the fourth-fastest ski time in the field.
“The race felt great!” Dunklee wrote in an email. “I had little expectation or pressure going into it. I wasn’t starting very high up and didn’t expect my skiing to bounce back so quickly. It felt so flat in the sprint and I’m not entirely sure why. Today felt more like the Antholz form I remember from the past. Having this strong performance will definitely boost my confidence going into the break.”
Dunklee missed two shots in the first stage, as well as one in the third. After the first stage she had dropped even lower than her bib number despite initially making up ground on skis.
“There were some big gusts on the range including one during my first prone that sent my first two shots wide,” she wrote. “The wind also dumped big clumps of snow on course from the trees. Today it was important to keep your sight covers closed between shootings.”
After cleaning her last stage, Dunklee left the range in 25th. But she wasn’t done yet. She skied the third-fastest closing loop – less than two seconds slower than Gasparin. She used her spot next to 2015 World Cup Total Score winner Kaisa Makarainen of Finland to her advantage.
“The highlight of the race was my last loop,” Dunklee wrote. “I left the range right behind a giant pack and patiently picked them off one by one following behind Kaisa. Then I remembered Kaisa’s been sick and not at the top of her form, so I passed her too. I really like the way the 2 km flows towards the end with its hard climbing attacks and recovery; it suits my strengths well.”
The second period of World Cup racing will conclude on Sunday with relays for both men and women.
Stay tuned for a report on the Canadian results.
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.