Gabriela Soukalova has worn the yellow World Cup leader’s bib for all but three starts this season – but up until Saturday she had only won a single World Cup, the sprint in the opening week of racing in Östersund, Sweden.
In the 12.5 kilometer mass start in Ruhpolding, Germany, the Czech rectified that situation by capitalizing on the errors of her main rival, Marie Dorin Habert of France. When both Habert and Franziska Hildebrand of Germany picked up penalties in the final round, Soukalova found herself in the lead and skiing uncontested in the final loop to take a 13.9 second victory – the tenth win of her career.
“I almost don’t believe this experience,” Soukalova said in an interview with Czech news service iDNES.cz. “Just before the start of the season, I was talking with a friend about whether I would ever this tenth World Cup. I put ten as a goal before the finish [of the season]. So that now I’ll have to increase that a little.”
It was heavy skiing, with snowfall slowing down the course. Soukalova rarely led. Instead it was Dorin Habert who was far and away the fastest and most aggressive skier of the day, and was leading coming into the final stage. But the French athlete missed four shots there, sending her to a long bout of purgatory in the penalty loop.
“It was bad from start to finish,” Habert, who eventually finished ninth, told L’Equipe of that last stage. “I sent the shots any which way, I forgot all the fundamentals, in fact I thought of nothing. I missed my shots… I’m really disappointed. It’s a bad way to end the week… four missed shots, it doesn’t happen to me often, but it happened to me today.”
Soukalova, on the other hand, was the only woman in the 29-starter field who hit all 20 of her targets.
“I thought that those two would somehow handle it,” she told iDNES. “But I really am not able to perceive anything of what was happening around me. In addition, I came to the last so tired that no one probably imagine it. I was glad when I pulled the trigger, and tried to focus on the entire process.”
Leaving the range with a 22-second margin to Hildebrand, Soukalova still didn’t feel safe. She felt the support, but also the pressure, of the sold out stadium in Ruhpolding.
“It’s really nice to feel the big support of my family here,” she said in a video interview with the IBU’s Jerry Kokesh. “We have a lot of members of my family here. Also I appreciated that I could hear the voices of the Czech spectators on the track during the race. It’s an atmosphere like in Nove Mesto.”
While Dorin Habert missed four, Hildebrand beside her missed just one. She closed a few seconds on Soukalova on the final loop, but not enough to take the win (finishing second +13.9). She also had to push to hold off her charging teammate Laura Dahlmeier, who closed hard for third place (+24.4).
“I’m just happy that today it worked so well and I’m on the podium in a mass start,” Hildebrand, who sits third in the World Cup overall score, told German broadcaster ZDF. “I just noticed that Marie had shot a miss, aside from that I just focused on myself. I hit four, and the fifth scurried away. But I was satisfied to get through that with one [miss].”
Dahlmeier was the third-fastest skier of the day, which is how she earned third despite two penalties, one each in the second and fourth stages.
“I think you could see on the first round, everyone stayed together in a pack, nobody wanted to take the lead,” she told ZDF regarding the snowfall. “It was a bit like a traffic jam on the autobahn (highway), stop and go. That was a new experience, but also fun to ski in a pack. Of course it was slower, but I just enjoyed it, the first real winter day. It’s nice if it’s all white every once in a while.”
Tiril Eckhoff of Norway used the second-fastest ski time of the day to earn fourth place, catching and outsprinting Maren Hammerschmidt of Germany on the final loop.
Susan Dunklee, the lone American starter, agreed with Dahlmeier’s assessment of the start.
“Conditions weren’t as challenging as they looked,” she wrote in an email. We got a lot of new snow last night, but the groomers packed it down very well. The new snow on top was slow, but I much rather have that than a deep slog through mush. I’ve never seen the women’s field take the first loop out so slowly. It felt like we were doing an OD. Nobody wanted to lead.”
For Canada’s Rosanna Crawford, the conditions were more challenging.
“I do struggle a bit in soft, fresh snow,” she wrote in an email. “I’m a big girl and it’s hard carrying that through soft snow! Skiing was really hard for me today, even though it’s been 7 days since I got to Europe I do find that I take a bit longer to get over jet lag, day 5 is usually good, which was the Individual. I tried really hard to stay on any pack that passed me, but just couldn’t.”
Crawford only found out she was racing 90 minutes before the race, since she was on the reserve list for the competition. But she had had a good idea that Kaisa Makarainen of Finland wasn’t starting, and then Franziska Preuss went out with a hairline fracture in her tailbone. She is out for at least one more weekend, perhaps more.
“I was pretty excited when I found out and had to tell my self to calm down about 3 times before I left for the venue!” Crawford wrote. “I looked at it like a nice surprise and a good opportunity to get some more points.”
Crawford had only a single miss, coming in the last shooting bout. Despite that, she finished 19th, +2:16.5.
“Roddy [Ward, Crawford’s coach] and I chatted a bit about how lane 30 was with the wind compared to the other lanes, so that was on my mind for the race,” she wrote. “I didn’t have to make any corrections though and my prone hits were solid… I think [the tough skiing] allowed me to be more calm in the range, because I knew that today was not a top 10 day. Shooting felt easy today and that showed with my shooting speed. It was fun to leave the range in 1st after the first prone, but I knew it wouldn’t last!”
Dunklee had a tough day on the range, hitting the penalty loop six times. She finished the day in 22nd, +2:40.7.
“My physical shape feels good and we had great equipment today, but I can’t expect to stay in the mix with six misses,” she wrote. “Going forward I’ll be looking to find that good feeling on the range again like I had last week. It’s there, I know it is.”
Both North Americans hope they can improve their performances for Sunday’s relay, the final competitions before the World Cup moves to Antholz, Italy.
“Looking forward to tomorrows relay and hopefully my legs will fell better,” Crawford wrote.
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.