Sean Doherty went for it on Saturday and the dividends paid off. The 20-year-old New Hampshire native became the most decorated athlete in the history of IBU Youth/Junior World Championships with his ninth career medal — silver in the junior men’s 10-kilometer sprint in Cheile Gradistei, Romania.
The 24th starter in a field of more than 100 men, Doherty, a US Biathlon A-team member and 2014 Olympian, established himself as the fastest skier almost immediately on a melting course amid balmy temperatures. By 1.7 k, he had put more than eight seconds into the field in first place. By the end of the first of three loops, he was 15 seconds of his biggest rival for the win: Austria’s Felix Leitner.
The winner of Thursday’s 15 k individual race, Leitner started in bib 2 on Saturday. An early leader, he cleaned the first of two stages, then missed one standing, but remained ahead to set the time to beat at the finish in 26:27.1.
Doherty emerged from the first prone with a single miss. The penalty put him 4.3 seconds behind Leitner heading into his second loop. During the second shooting, Doherty, a bronze medalist on Thursday, missed another in standing. He left the range 8.7 seconds down to Leitner and crossed the finish line in second, 11.5 seconds back.
The top-two times held firm despite challenges from France’s Emilien Jacquelin, who started 31st, and Germany’s David Zobel in bib 80. Both cleaned prone, and Jacquelin ranked second to Leitner after the first shooting, about two seconds ahead of Doherty. Two penalties in his standing stage dropped the Frenchman to fourth, where he would end up, 46.7 behind Leitner.
Zobel ended up on the podium with a single standing miss, leaving the range for the last loop in fifth and overtaking Jacquelin and Poland’s Mateus Janik to achieve third (+39.3). Janik slipped from third to 11th on the last loop with the 42nd-ranked course time on that loop.
In an email, US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler stated he knew Doherty was having another medal-worthy day after the second shooting. After the first stage, he could tell that “only Felix Leitner [had] the ski speed to beat Sean with 0 or 1 penalties today,” he wrote.
Doherty posted the fastest overall course time by 6.5 seconds over Leitner.
“He was very aggressive today from the start,” Eisenbichler continued. “This is how you have to go for a Sprint race like today and I was very pleased to see that.”
This edition of Youth/Junior World Championships is Doherty’s sixth. Over the years, he has won three gold medals, earned four silvers and two bronze.
“Today’s race was a great sprint for me,” Doherty said in a US Biathlon press release. “I felt really good on the skis and I was able to ski the aggressive type of race that I want to. I’m looking forward to the pursuit.”
Doherty will start Sunday’s pursuit in second, 12 seconds behind Leitner, who has racked up three world titles in the last two years (including two this week).
“I think right now I am the happiest men in the world,” Leitner, 19, said in a post-race press conference. “After I missed the [standing target], I was thinking that is going to be harder because it was so hot, but I knew I am in a good shape and I thought I could get a medal. It is going to be interesting tomorrow.”
During the press conference, Doherty complimented the race organizers for their ability to deal with well-above freezing conditions this week. On Thursday, temperatures were around 7 degrees Celsius (45 Fahrenheit) under sunny skies.
“The people from Cheile Grădiștei did a great job preparing the tracks,” he said. “This weather has been very warm, but the conditions were quite good today and I think it was a great day for racing. I feel great and my shape is really good I am really excited for tomorrow.”
Zobel will start third in the pursuit, 27 seconds after Doherty.
“It was a tough race, but I think I did my best and I am really happy with the third place,” the German said of the sprint in the press conference. “I nearly died at my last loop.”
Sunday’s pursuits are the final individual races of the 2016 championships. Relays will follow on Monday and Tuesday.
Top 7 for Phaneuf
In the junior women’s 7.5 k sprint, Maddie Phaneuf came within 0.9 seconds of her second-straight flower ceremony (top six) in seventh, 36.9 seconds behind the winner and 24.5 seconds off the podium.
Phaneuf (US Biathlon X-team) started ninth, and proceeded to clean prone and miss one standing to initially finish third behind France’s Chloe Chevalier (bib 6) and Ukraine’s Anastasiya Merkushyna (bib 4), respectively.
The 29th starter, Hanna Öberg of Sweden ultimately topped the field in 21:18.1 with perfect 10-for-10 shooting. She bumped Switzerland’s Lena Häcki in bib 11 out of first at the finish by 0.6 seconds for the win. Häcki took second despite two penalties (0+2) and another Swede, Anna Magnusson placed third (+12.4) with one miss (0+1).
France’s Lena Arnaud cleaned for fourth (+28.2), Chevalier placed fifth (+35.9) and Merkushyna was sixth (+36.0).
Overall, Phaneuf’s course time ranked ninth. The result was her third best in her third-and-final youth/junior worlds. Coming into these races, she explained in a previous email she had hoped to finish in the top 10.
“The skiing is on a good level now and the shooting was before already,” Eisenbichler observed of Phaneuf. “Before she had to rely on her shooting to make a good result, but now she is a more complete biathlete. Still a lot of work to do, but very much on the right way.”
Neither Doherty nor Phaneuf could be reached for comment on Saturday.
For Öberg, it was her first individual podium in five youth/junior worlds.
“I wasn’t so nervous on the shooting range but on the last shoot I had to take an extra breath,” she said in the post-race press conference. “I was a little bit tired with the skiing. I knew at the beginning of the last loop that I have a few extra seconds but I didn’t know that the finish is going to be so tight. I am so happy I can’t believe it.”
Six-tenths of a second short of first, Häcki told the Swiss Ski Federation that she knew it was going to be close on the final loop. Her medal was the first for Switzerland at Junior World Championships since Benjamin Weger placed second in the 2009 sprint in Canmore, Alberta.
“My coaches informed me after the shooting that I only had a 15-second deficit to first place,” Häcki said. “I gave it all I had, but Hanna was a little faster than me in the end. But I won the second place and did not lose the first.”
With one miss, Magnusson, who started six places behind Häcki, sat in second with one loop to go. However, the Swede failed to match Häcki’s time, finishing 11.8 seconds behind her in third.
“I am really happy to be on the podium and especially with Hanna,” Magnusson said in the press conference. “We are both from the same small town from Sweden.”
The U.S. team’s second junior woman, Siena Ellingson finished 48th (+3:41.9) with four penalties (2+2). Paul Everett was 62nd in the men’s race with three misses (2+1), followed by Travis Cooper in 86th with seven penalties (4+3), and Brian Halligan in 92nd with six misses (2+4).
“Sean and Maddie showed the other US starters what’s possible of American athletes and that’s really important,” Eisenbichler wrote. “Needs very hard work to get there, but it’s possible!”
For Canada, Leilani Tam von Burg led the team with her second-straight top 30 with a career best 28th (+2:18.8) with one miss (0+1). Kendall Chong placed 51st (+3:58.7) with the same 0+1 shooting, and Charlotte Hamel was 62nd with two misses (1+1). Caitlin Campbell did not finish.
Matthew Strum was the top Canadian male in 37th (+2:37.1) with two penalties (0+2). Pearce Hanna was 48th (+3:06.9) with three misses (2+1), Aidan Millar 55th (+3:39.3) with five misses (2+3), and Alex Dupuis 69th with five misses as well (2+3).
- 2016 IBU Youth/Junior World Championships
- Anastasiya Merkushyna
- Anna Magnusson
- Bernd Eisenbichler
- Cheile Gradistei
- Chloe Chevalier
- David Zobel
- Emilien Jacquelin
- Felix Leitner
- Hanna Öberg
- IBU Youth/Junior World Championships
- junior men's 10 k sprint
- Leilani Tam Von Burg
- Lena Arnaud
- Lena Häcki
- Maddie Phaneuf
- Matthew Strum
- Sean Doherty
- US Biathlon