It’s easy to get excited when you’re returning to a place that’s been good to you.
Just ask Simon Schempp, who won his first two biathlon World Cups in Antholz, Italy, in 2014. Then he won two more in 2015, again the sprint and the pursuit.
In Antholz on Friday, the German went for the sprint hat trick, shooting a perfect score and besting Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov by 5.8 seconds over the 10 kilometer race.
“What more could you want?” Schempp asked in an interview with Germany’s ARD broadcaster. “With such an audience- there are a number of people here who I know, including my parents. Bluebird sky, no wind on the shooting range, absolutely fair conditions on the course from the first to the last starter, that’s as good as it gets.”
A relatively early starter, with bib 16, Schempp endured some scares. In bib 28, Tarjei Bø of Norway left the range clean and with a 12.5 second deficit to make up. He began to close it, but ultimately couldn’t.
Tsvetkov left the range with an even smaller gap – just 1.6 seconds behind Schempp in the timing. But he couldn’t cover the ground as quickly and ended up second, bumping Bø to third.
“The level is so big, in every sprint you have to work perfect to get the victory,” Schempp told the IBU.
24-year-old Tsvetkov, a two-time World Youth and two-time World Junior Champion, earned his first individual podium.
“It is really hard to describe the feelings, but in one word: happy,” he said in the post-race press conference. “Actually I felt very good on the first loop and was pretty calm on the shooting range, so it was pretty easy to shoot clean today.”
Tsvetkov made his first flower ceremony the week before in Ruhpolding, Germany, where he finished fifth in the 20 k individual. That earned him a spot on the Russian relay team, a big honor on the competitive Russian team.
But in the relay he used three spare rounds, half of the team’s total, and under his watch the team dropped from third to fourth. Even though they eventually claimed second place, Tsvetkov was criticized in the media and his performance was used to argue that young racers shouldn’t be put on relay teams.
Second place might prove some doubters wrong, and Tsvetkov credits a certain German with turning things around for him.
“After Ricco Gross came to the team, there was a different approach to training,” Tsvetkov said in an interview with Sport-Express. “The first half of the season Ricco constantly supported me, soothed me, said that there is no reason to worry, you just need to safely train and prepare for performances. And race like in training. When in Hochfilzen, I showed good results in the pursuit, then it somehow just became fundamentally easier. Still, it’s a big deal when the coach supports you like that.”
After Bø, Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France finished fourth, +12.1, also with clean shooting. Anton Shipulin of Russia made it into the top five despite a penalty, finishing +13.6 with the fourth-fastest ski time of the day.
So the big question for the field is whether Schempp can also win his third Antholz pursuit on Saturday. Tsvetkov and others hope they can stop the streak.
“I just looked at the gaps, and it’s all very close together,” Schempp told ARD. “The spectators can look forward to a really exciting competition.”
Tim Burke of the United States finished 17th with a single penalty and will start the 12.5 k pursuit on Saturday 49.6 seconds behind Schempp.
“I am really happy with my performance today, even though the result was not what I was hoping for,” Burke wrote in an email. “I feel like I had a good race plan and besides the one penalty, I was able to carry it through. This was one of my best performances in a sprint race, although the result does not reflect that. Unfortunately I made a poor choice during my ski test today and I feel like this cost me a lot. With the field so close right now, everything has to be perfect.”
Last week Burke had said that Antholz was one of his favorite venues and he was looking forward to good results. After a large volume of racing for the whole field in Ruhpolding, he’s recharged and ready for the pursuit once he sorts out his ski choice.
“I came out of the Ruhpolding races feeling pretty good,” Burke wrote. “Since I did not get into the Mass Start races there, I was able to recover and get in some good training. I feel like that should benefit me here, now I just need to take advantage of it! I am not starting too far back for the pursuit, so I think this will be a great opportunity for a good result with a solid performance.”
All four American men qualified for the pursuit, with Lowell Bailey finishing 32nd (two penalties, +1:15.4), Leif Nordgren 43rd (one penalty, +1:30.2), and Sean Doherty 49th (one penalty, +1:40.5).
The top Canadian was Brendan Green, who finished 45th (+1:32.2) with two penalties. He will be joined in the pursuit by teammate Nathan Smith, who had three penalties and finished 58th (+1:50.5) to snag one of the last spots.
Macx Davies finished 69th (two penalties, +2:15.1), Christian Gow 86th (one penalty, +2:35.5), and Scott Gow 94th (four penalties, +3:05.1).
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.