Out of 27 teams, the U.S. found itself in second at the final exchange of the first-ever biathlon single mixed relay held at the Youth Olympic Games on Wednesday in Lillehammer, Norway. That was quite the rush for two 17-year-old Americans.
“Getting tagged off in 2nd just behind a couple seconds behind Norway was surreal,” U.S. anchor Vasek Cervenka described in an email.
In the biathlon pursuit two days earlier, Cervenka, a Czech Republic native who lives in Boulder, Colo., raced to 20th with 19-for-20 shooting. His teammate in the single mixed relay on Wednesday, Chloe Levins cleaned the four-stage pursuit and placed fourth.
“Biathlon is similar to golf in that the main goal is to try to be in contention coming into the last stage (or round),” Levins, who skied the first and third legs for the U.S., wrote in an email. “During that last stage (or round), however, whatever happens is only partially in your control. Autopilot comes on, time takes over, and whatever happens is very difficult to control.”
In the single mixed relay, each competitor rounded the 1.5-kilometer course six times — three times on each leg. They stopped to shoot twice during each leg (first prone, then standing). Misses could be remedied by using up to three spare rounds, but beyond those spares, an athlete had to ski 75-meter penalty loops for the number of targets they failed to clean.
Levins tagged Cervenka for the fourth-and-last leg, 2.2 seconds behind Norway and 1 second ahead of France in third. She had used a total of four spares throughout her four shooting stages and avoided the penalty lap (0+1, 0+0; 0+1, 0+2).
“The start of the relay was very crowded,” Levins recalled. “Nevertheless, extremely fast skis and the use of just one extra round helped me navigate through some of the other competitors.”
At the first exchange, she tagged Cervenka in seventh, 24 seconds behind China in first. Cervenka then cleaned his prone and used one spare in standing to tag Levins in fourth, 12.5 seconds behind Finland — which had moved into the lead. Meanwhile, China dropped to 10th with two penalty loops in the standing stage of that leg.
“Vasek’s excellent shooting in his first leg put us in fourth, and set me up for a very exciting second round,” Levins explained. “During my second leg, I had more room to ski my own pace on the course. After using one extra round in the prone stage, I left the range with the leader in sight. I am a little frustrated that it took me two extra rounds to hit my miss in the last standing stage, but some mistakes by some of the more competitive nations opened the door for us to move into second position after my second leg.”
On the last two legs, China hit all of its targets to recover from 10th into fourth, and then finally first at the finish. Fanqi Meng and Zhenyu Zhu claimed gold in 41:35.4, just two-tenths of a second ahead of Norway in second and 14.9 seconds ahead of Russia in third.
The anchor legs for Norway, France, Russia, Germany, and the U.S. (Cervenka), used three spares apiece in their final standing stages. France also had a penalty, Germany had two penalties, and Cervenka had to ski a penalty loop as well after the last stage. That put the U.S. in sixth at the finish, 53.8 seconds behind the winners, with a total of one penalty and eight spares (0+0, 0+1; 0+0, 1+3 for Cerkenva).
“It is too bad that I couldn’t clean my last standing shooting,” wrote Cervenka, who turned 17 earlier this month. “We would of had a really great shot at a medal. I was pretty satisfied with our results in the end. All the guys in the top 6 had a solid half a foot in height on me and were overall stronger skiers. I am so proud of Chloe for her performance today, she is awesome.”
Just 0.2 seconds from gold, Norway took silver with Marthe Johansen and Fredrik Qvist Bucher-Johannessen, with a total of one penalty and 12 spares. Russia earned bronze with Ekaterina Ponedelko and Egor Tutmin, with three penalties and 13 spares. France was fourth (+30.2) with Lou Jeanmonnot-Laurent and Emilien Claude combining for three penalties and eight spares, and Germany (Juliane Frühwirt/Danilo Riethmüller) finished fifth (+53.8), about five seconds ahead of there U.S., with one penalty and eight spares.
“Today’s race was a great learning experience for Vasek and myself,” Levins wrote. “We are satisfied and thankful for all of the work and encouragement our coaches do and give to us during every race. We may not have made the podium, but I think we had the most fun today!”
“I was pretty satisfied with our results in the end,” Cervenka wrote. “Thanks to my parents, coaches, teammates, and wax techs for tons of support and wicked fast skis.”
Canada finished 13th (+3:23.0) with Tekarra Banser and Ben Churchill combining for two penalties and 10 spares. The anchor, Churchill cleaned three of four stages, using just one spare in his second prone stage (0+0, 0+0; 0+1, 0+0).
“This was an excellent opportunity for us to try and do some damage among the field in a new event,” Churchill said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “It was a lot of fun to try and pace myself well through both legs, stay warm in the interim, and keep my cool mentally no matter how Tekarra was doing.”
In Monday’s 10 k pursuit, Churchill shot 18-for-20 and achieved a career-best 10th. He had previously placed 17th in the 7.5 k sprint.
“I went into the pursuit feeling hungry and aiming to improve on my sprint result,” Churchill said. “Taking some lessons from the sprint, I attacked the course more intelligently, pushing harder up the hill each time. Execution in the pursuit was much more put-together, and I was thrilled to notch my first top-10 result in an international competition. Big thanks goes out to our wax technicians and the invaluable behind-the-scenes support from our coach, Luke McGurk, and the rest of the Team Canada Mission Staff!”
In the relay, Banser accounted for both penalties and nine spares (0+2, 0+3; 2+3, 0+1). At the first exchange, the Canadians were in 21st, 1:47 back from the leaders, then improved to 14th (+1:27) at the second handoff, before Banser tagged Churchill for the last time in 16th, 2:16 back. He brought them to 13th at the finish.
“Competing in the single mixed relay was exhilarating to say the least. Starting in a mass start format with 26 other countries made it tougher to focus, but I was able to get into my zone,” Banser said. “Fighting to stay with the pack on the first lap was challenging. The corners were tight and the other athletes were just as aggressive as I was. I ran into a few obstacles throughout my portion of the race, although I kept fighting to the last second and left nothing in the tank.”
On Sunday, biathletes at YOG will wrap up with a four-person mixed relay.
“My experience at YOG has been spectacular so far,” Levins wrote. “Because the Norwegian culture is rooted in cross-country skiing and biathlon, fans have flooded the stadium for every one of our competitions! It feels great to be a part of an atmosphere that cares so much about the sport Vasek and I dedicate so much of our time to. The organizers have done an excellent job of maintaining near-perfect snow conditions on the track as well.”
“So far the YOG experience has been incredible,” Cervenka wrote. “So much time has been put into this event I am glad it is going so well.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.