It’s not often that you can hear catcalls and booing in a ski stadium. A football, basketball or soccer game maybe, but biathlon? On Sunday, 20,000 spectators packed the Chiemgau Arena in Ruhpolding, Germany, and many were not pleased with how the IBU World Cup women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay played out. Just before the finish, Ukraine’s anchor Olena Pidhrushna, skiing in first, cut off local fan-favorite Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier to claim the ideal left lane in the final stretch. That ended Dahlmeier’s furious chase on the last loop to finish, and Ukraine took the win by 1.2 seconds in 1:16:14.2.
Ukraine, with Iryna Varvynets, Yuliia Dzhyma, Valj Semerenko, and Pidhrushna, incurred one penalty lap and only needed four spare rounds (three prone and one standing), while Germany, with Karolin Horchler, Miriam Gössner, Maren Hammerschmidt and Dahlmeier, had two penalties and required eleven spares (six prone, five standing), but the latter three athletes all skied the fastest course times on their legs to make up the deficit.
Behind them, Dorothea Wierer anchored Italy — which had no penalties and used 10 spares — to third (+43.8), about a second of Russia’s Olga Podchufarova, after the Russians had two penalties and required seven spares. Thus the same teams that had already been on the podium after the first relay of the season December in Hochfilzen, Austria, made it again, except Italy and Ukraine swapped positions.
Teams from 22 countries started on Sunday and 17 finished without being lapped.
Canada, with Julia Ransom, Rosanna Crawford, Megan Tandy, and Zina Kocher, placed ninth (+1:59.5) with no penalties and seven spare rounds, while the U.S., with Annelies Cook, Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan, and Joanne Reid, finished 16th(+5:39.8) with three penalties and eleven spare rounds.
‘Of course you are angry in the moment’
At first, Dahlmeier was visibly annoyed about the end of the race, after she erased a 27.7-second gap on the last leg (and was still 9.2 seconds behind heading into the last loop). After getting blocked she switched back to the middle lane, but once she realized she couldn’t beat Pidhrushna, Dahlmeier stopped pushing and slammed her right pole into the snow across the finish.
“The final loop was really hard. Of course you are angry in that moment, after going at full throttle for 6 kilometers, and then it fails on the last few meters,” said Dahlmeier, who anchored Germany to a relay gold at 2015 World Championships, told TV broadcaster ZDF. “But we can be very, very happy about the second place, especially with the penalty laps that were shot, and with this lineup. I think that’s really nice, and a beautiful finish for the days in Ruhpolding.”
“It was a hard last loop,” Pidhrushna said at the post-race press conference through a translator. “I know Laura is a really good skier, and I knew that I would have to fight for every meter. I am really happy that the team won. I just held the shortest line to the finish. I really wanted to win; it was a big battle but it is sport.”
After seeing a replay again, Dahlmeier agreed in a later interview with ZDF: “That was all correct, you can’t say anything against that. For me, it’s too bad; it didn’t help to switch lanes, and then it was already all over. Maybe I have to train a little bit with the cross-country skiers, pick up some things on how they solve sprints in order to become better.”
“That’s biathlon, that’s the race,” her teammate Hammerschmidt said at the press conference. “It was the same in Hochfilzen [where Germany lost a finishing sprint to Italy], maybe in the next relay we are first. But I think it was OK, and the girls [from Ukraine] make a good job, congratulations to the first place.”
The German athletes did not complain for long, knowing their day could have ended much worse after second leg Gössner incurred two penalty laps earlier in the race, at that time falling back to 15th position with the podium seemingly out of reach.
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Several teams had opted to rest good athletes for Sunday’s relay at the end of a long block of races, including Germany. Franziska Hildebrand, who already won two World Cups this season, had asked her coaches for a break, and then Vanessa Hinz also had to defer her relay start due to a cold, while teammate Franziska Preuss missed the entire Ruhpolding weekend with a hairline fracture in her tailbone.
That prompted the coaches to change their second-place relay from Hochfilzen on three positions, and make a call to Karolin Horchler, 26, who originally had other plans for Sunday:
“[Saturday] afternoon I had been on my way to Ridnaun, South Tyrol [Italy], because I was supposed to compete there in an IBU Cup mixed relay today,” Horchler told ZDF. “And shortly before the arrival Gerald [Hönig, women’s head coach] called me and said I should please turn around. All in all, it was on the road for five hours… To start here in my second home in Ruhpolding, that’s what I always dreamed of.”
“It’s surely not a very common lineup,” coach Hönig told ZDF before the race. “But in general our expectation is that any relay team we start contends for a spot on the podium.”
Similar to Germany, the Czech Republic chose to rest overall World Cup leader Gabriela Soukalová, France rested Marie Dorin-Habert, currently second place in the World Cup standings, Italy’s Federica Sanfilippo sat out the relay, and Austria’s top skier Lisa Theresa Hauser missed it as well. Finland didn’t enter a team, missing their best athletes Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Marie Laukanen.
The newly called-up Horchler began the race well for her team, skiing at a pace that allowed her to stay in contact with the best and requiring only one spare each in prone and standing. She tagged off in fifth place, 22 seconds behind Norway’s Marte Olsbu in the lead, with Ukraine’s Varvynets in second after shooting clean.
“It was a really crazy day, in the morning I heard that I can start here. The second place is very good for the team. It’s wonderful,” Horchler said in the press conference after the race.
“It’s surely not a very common lineup, but in general our expectation is that any relay team we start contends for a spot on the podium.” — German Women’s Head Coach Gerald Hönig
Germany’s second skier, Gössner skied out fast on her first loop making up positions, but struggled in prone, missing two of her targets and quickly running out of spare rounds.
“Trying to do everything especially well because it’s a relay is a fitting description,” Gössner told ZDF while the race was still going on, with tears welling up in her eyes. “I really can’t explain myself how I can shoot two penalty laps in prone. I didn’t have the feeling that conditions were difficult or that I was shaking… Then I was completely flustered, I didn’t know if that shot went left or right, just didn’t know where to aim.”
After another fast loop, at least she was able to avoid the penalty lap in the standing position after requiring two spare rounds, usually her more shaky discipline, moving up to 13th place.
“Without my two penalty laps a lot more would have been possible today,” a still-disappointed Gössner later told ZDF after the race. “Our luck was that the other nations also shot penalty laps, so the other two [teammates] could make up some time, and that saved us. But my race was absolutely not good.”
“Yeah, she is very annoyed, but that’s relay,” said Hammerschmidt, who lifted Germany from 11th to second on the third leg. “That happens to everyone, but it’s all the better for her that we still got the second place. And I just told her she is allowed to say two more sentences about her shooting, and then we’ll call it a day.”
“I just told her she is allowed to say two more sentences about her shooting, and then we’ll call it a day.” — Germany’s Maren Hammerschmidt, about her teammate Miriam Gössner
While Gössner had been struggling on the range, Ukraine’s Dzhyma shot clean at the top of the field, and while not quite as fast as the German behind her, also skied the sixth-fastest time on her leg.
“Our skis were really good today, thanks to the service team,” she said in the press conference. “I like the new [additional] snow better.”
Hammerschmidt received the tag 1:48.8 minutes behind Ukraine in 11th place, then began a furious chase to get closer to the top again (“one of the best relay performances I can remember in quite a while” ZDF color-commentator Herbert Fritzenwenger commented).
She missed two shots in her prone shooting stage, and then needed one more spare round in standing.
“I have to say, I was a little too cautious there,” Hammerschmidt told ZDF. “I should have turned [on the sights] immediately but thought ‘maybe it will work,’ and when you think that it usually doesn’t. So I should have reacted earlier, I got pretty nervous there after the two misses. In standing I went with full risk, and thankfully only had to reload once.”
Like Gössner, she skied the fastest course time of all athletes on her leg, and handed off to Dahlmeier in second place, 27.7 seconds behind.
“Of course I would have liked to have a better starting position,” Hammerschmidt told ZDF during the race. “But maybe the pressure was off a little. I just wanted to do my own race, and see that I can catch a good pack. I had really good skis today, and felt good on the course. On the last loop I could catch one after another, that was such a great feeling. And then I was really surprised to be second in the finish.”
Ukraine’s Semerenko skied the third leg, and at this point could have secured a large gap over the rest of the field. She narrowly missed her last shot in prone, but then the usually solid shooter was not able to clean the remaining target with her three spares, and had to ski a penalty lap. That opened the race back up as Belarus’ Nadzeya Pisareva overtook her and some other teams moving back within striking distance of the lead.
“I had nothing left but to run faster,” Semerenko joked in the press conference, according to a translator.
How quickly the fortune of a team in a relay can change was demonstrated once again after the next shooting. Pisareva and Semerenko each needed one spare in standing, with Semerenko still trailing by 9.8 seconds as she left the range. Then suddenly Pisareva completely ran out of energy, and could be seen trying to herringbone up the next hill without any glide.
Semerenko quickly passed her, along with several other teams as well. At the bottom of the next climb, Pisareva stopped next to one of her coaches to exchange a few words, seemingly ready to quit the race, before continuing to ski again.
The Belarusian tagged her teammate Darya Yurkevich 1:28.2 minutes behind in 11th place. Yurkevich would end up losing two more positions, finishing 13th (+2:40), despite Belarus posting one of the best shooting performances of the field for Belarus (no penalties, five spares).
With Belarus now out of the picture, the race for the podium on the final leg came down to Ukraine, Germany (+27.7), Norway (+28.6), Italy (+42.4), Sweden (+43.0), Slovakia (+45.3), and Russia (+45.7), with more teams looming shortly behind.
Dahlmeier set out at a fast pace to close the gap to Pidhrushna, and after both shot clean in prone, the lead had been reduced to 18 seconds. On the next loop, Dahlmeier stormed up the climbs and managed to catch Pidhrushna, overtaking her just before the shooting range. But while the Ukrainian stayed clean in the final standing stage, Dahlmeier required one spare, again falling behind by 9.2 seconds as they left the range.
On the final loop, Dahlmeier had more problems catching up to Pidhrushna again, who managed to preserve her lead through the last flat section and descent into the stadium. Then the most talked-about scene of the race happened, and Ukraine prevailed in that final sprint.
“I was pretty down on my strength, but too bad, at the end it went a little poorly,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “Maybe I should have stayed behind her and then pick the middle lane. A little unfortunate. But still, considering how it looked initially, we are mega-happy about the second place. That was a grandiose success, and you really see what is all possible in a relay race.”
After a number of changes between several countries vying for third place, Italy,
with Lisa Vittozzi, Karin Oberhofer, Alexia Rungaldier and Wierer, beat out Russia’s Ekaterina Shumilova, Daria Virolaynen, Ekaterina Yurlova and Podchufarova in a second exciting finishing sprint by 1.1 seconds.
“I think the relay is the work of the whole team, everybody has to do their best, it’s not only one man or one woman,” Wierer said in the press conference. “I was in the fourth position when I started, and I was a little bit worried because [there were] also Tiril [Eckhoff] and Laura. I hoped that I would shoot well. I was a little too fast in the standing so I missed the first one. But I was lucky that Tiril shot more misses than me. And then behind me was the Russian, and I was really nervous. I was sure that she will pass me on the finish line, but I gave everything and it was the third place, finally.”
Norway was fifth (+1:11.5) with Marte Olsbu, Fanny Horn Birkeland, Synnøve Solemdal and Eckhoff combining for one penalty and 13 spares. Olsbu tagged the team in first after the first leg, and after Birkeland’s penalty on the second leg, Norway still remained in podium contention, picking off the places with Germany, until Eckhoff required all her spares on the last leg — three in prone, three in standing.
Ahead of the upcoming World Championships at home in Oslo, the Norwegian women have not reached the podium since taking bronze at the 2014 Olympics, though they remain hopeful.
“It may not look like we’re there yet, but we are good enough. It’s about getting the final touches in place,” Eckhoff told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
Canada in Top 10
For Canada, Ransom’s day began with tangle out of the start and a resulting broken pole, but she quickly received a replacement.
“It caught me a little by surprise but I quickly realized that I needed to signal to someone for a spare,” Ransom wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I was on the opposite side of the trail as all of the coaches, but one of our wax techs was somehow able to get a pole to me despite having a few girls between us. Unfortunately that little mishap put me to the back of the pack, but I was able to sneak my way back in there before the first shooting.”
After the field had stayed closely together on the first loop, Ransom shot fast and accurately in the first prone, cleaning all five targets and leaving the range in fifth place. By the next timing point, she even had moved up to third.
“I was stoked to be skiing with the top 3 girls! I felt strong and controlled on skis,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, I struggled with my [standing] spares and lost those leaders. I’m not letting that happen again next relay! “
In her standing stage, Ransom initially missed just one shot, but then required all three spares to clean it and avoid the penalty lap. She fell back a few positions, and tagged off to Crawford in 11th place, 50.7 seconds behind Norway up front.
Crawford shot flawlessly, cleaning both her prone and standing positions, something only 10 other athletes achieved on Sunday. When she left the range after the last stage she had moved her team back up to fifth place (+1:01.5), then only lost only a few more seconds on the final loop tagging Tandy still in fifth (+1:07.7), behind Slovakia and ahead of Norway.
In the prone stage, Tandy missed two targets, then needed all three spares to clean them, leaving the range in 10th place (+1:17.1) with Germany still behind in 12th. In standing, Tandy was able to stay clean, though she could not make up another position. But she also barely lost any more time, tagging off in 10th and 1:17.6 back.
Team veteran Kocher anchored the relay, and like her teammates, displayed a strong shooting performance. She cleaned prone, and then had only one miss in the final standing, leaving the range in the vicinity of a number of other teams fighting for position.
“Last laps are usually my strength so I attacked leaving standing,” Kocher wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, just before the uphills the French competitor [Celia Aymonier] stepped on my pole and it broke, costing me metres of time. I got a pole fairly soon from Norway, but it was very short, and then for the last sprint to the finish switched it for my own pole from our coach Matthias [Ahrens]. But that cost us a potential top 6. Two broken poles for our team, crazy!”
In the end, she finished the ninth for Canada, 1:59.5 minutes back, with no penalties and only seven spares. “Excellent momentum for going forward to next week’s relay for our team,” Kocher concluded.
“Our team had a goal of collectively using 8 spares and stay in the top 10… We also wanted to beat Sweden to maintain our current Nation’s Cup position,” Ransom wrote.
They achieved both those goals. The Nations Cup is its own end-of-season award by the IBU, but also determines the number of starting spots a country gets awarded for the next year. Germany is still in the lead after the races of this weekend, with Canada in 10th position and the U.S. in 15th.
“I was proud of our women’s team today. We all had fairly solid races and had the potential for top 6; unfortunately Zina broke a pole on her last lap, which caused a fall and a few positions. I think we are all fired up for another exciting race next weekend,” Ransom added. “The crowds here in Ruhpolding were fantastic. They brought a lot of energy to the races and were devoted fans in even the worst conditions.”
U.S. 16th with three penalties
For the U.S. the relay got off to a difficult start, when Cook incurred a penalty lap in her first prone shooting, leaving the range in 20th position, 58.6 seconds back behind the leaders.
“I was disappointed in myself today because I had a penalty in the first prone shooting that put me in the back of the pack,” Cook said in a US Biathlon press release. “I was unable to get the girls into a good starting position, although I had a lot of confidence in what could happen after that. It was a crazy day with lots of penalty loops happening to great teams and the standings changed a lot through the race.”
After a better standing stage shooting where she only required one spare, Cook about kept her position but lost a few more seconds to the top (despite skiing the 14th best course time on her leg), tagging Dunklee in 21st (+1:38.4).
Dunklee, who had been the starter for several years, again moved to the second leg, the same order the team had experimented with in the relay in Hochfilzen. After needing one spare in the prone, she had moved up one position, but had lost additional time to the leaders (+1:58.8) despite skiing the fastest first loop.
In standing, she again had to use one spare and left the range in 19th (+2:26.3). Dunklee barely lost more time on the final loop, and tagged Egan in 18th, having made up three positions on her leg, but almost losing another minute to the top, now 2:29.9 behind.
On Sunday, Egan had one of her best recent shooting performances, cleaning prone and only requiring one spare round in standing.
“I made a breakthrough in my standing shooting at the beginning of the winter, and I’m taking advantage of that newfound confidence. I have bad stages now and then but I am learning from each one and improving all the time,” Egan wrote in an email. “For example I missed 1,3 in the first two stages of Thursday’s Individual, but then pulled myself together and finished the race with 0,0 on the last two stages. Today I missed my last (10th) shot, which is a letdown, but I was able to hit it with my first spare round.”
Out on the loop, Egan skied the 14th-fastest time of her leg, and was able to move her team up two positions, tagging off 2:45.4 minutes behind in 16th.
“The conditions were relatively fast today,” she added. “It snowed a ton last night but we were lucky and it stopped during our race. Our wax staff gave me excellent skis this morning, but unfortunately I was not able to put them to very good use, as my body was not responding well at all.”
In her first week with the World Cup team, Joanne Reid anchored the relay (in place of Hannah Dreissigacker, who skied that leg during the first relay of the season).
“I think the reason the coaches put me last is because I don’t have the consistency or the experience of the rest of the team, and therefore any mistakes I made would be after they had already raced,” Reid wrote in an email.
Reid emerged from prone having used just one spare, but then struggled in the final standing, running out of spare rounds and ultimately having to ski two penalty laps (0+1, 2+3).
“Today I made what I assume is a classic error for a new biathlete coming in from pure skiing, and came into the range too hard in standing,” Reid explained. “I was intensely focused on catching the two teams in front of me, which was going well until I got to the range. It’s always hard to remember in the heat of the moment that your shooting is just as important as your skiing.”
“The pacing on that lap was certainly my mistake, and not just pacing, but the fact that I don’t have the shooting skill to handle as high of a heart rate or shoot at the same speed as the rest of the girls, not to mention I hand load spares much slower.”
Overall, Reid skied the 11th-fastest course time.
“It was definitely a fast course out there, but still very difficult. I can only imagine how tired the athletes are who have raced the entire world cup period, and also qualified for and raced the mass start this weekend,” she wrote. “For Susan to go out there and ski the fastest leg after all those races (and long ones besides) is incredibly inspiring to me, and I wish I could have given her a better performance on my end.”
“I really enjoyed the course out there today — we were much luckier than everyone in the mass start to have such hard-packed conditions,” Reid added. “I think that’s the only 6 km I’ve ever skied in my life, so I wish I could compare it to something, but until I do a few more biathlons I have no reference point.”
Reid finished in 16th for the U.S., ahead of Romania, with the other five teams behind them lapped.
“We wanted to do better than last time (15th) but unfortunately we fell just short of that today,” Egan concluded in her email.
“This team has so much potential and I really believe in that,” Cook said in a US Biathlon press release. “So many of the pieces are there and are also showing, but not quite enough of them to do what we are capable of. It is frustrating but it is also making us hungry to do better and we have another relay coming up next week.”
“I think a team always goes into a relay with the hope that they can improve on their start position,” Reid wrote. “Obviously for us today, that didn’t happen, but I think we have a lot of the pieces right, and I’m certain this team (whether or not in the future it includes me), can have an incredible day.”
The IBU World Cup now moves on to Antholz-Anterselva, Italy, where there will be another relay for the women and men on Sunday.
- Annelies Cook
- Clare Egan
- Darya Yurkevich
- Dorothea Wierer
- Gerald Hönig
- IBU World Cup relay
- Iryna Varvynets
- Joanne Reid
- Julia Ransom
- Karolin Horchler
- Laura Dahlmeier
- Maren Hammerschmidt
- Megan Tandy
- Miriam Gossner
- Nadzeya Pisareva
- Olena Pidhrushna
- Olga Podchufarova
- Rosanna Crawford
- Susan Dunklee
- Valj Semerenko
- Women's Relay
- Yuliia Dzhyma
- Zina Kocher
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.