Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we’re in the gunslinging days of the Wild West — perhaps not so far off in Canmore, Alberta, where wide-brimmed cowboy hats are a trademark today.
You meet Italy’s Dorothea Wierer — sans the modern-day mascara, flashy sunglasses and questions of how she got to Canada in the late 1800s — on the dusty road and it’s time for a draw. Bottom line, you should put your hands up.
More than a couple times this season, the 25-year-old Wierer has proved that she can shoot under pressure. Just over three weeks ago, she cleaned the four-stage 15 k individual race at the IBU World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, to take the win. She pulled off a similar feat in the individual race at the early season World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, for her first career win.
So when France’s Marie Dorin Habert took an extra breath or two to clean her final shot in the third shooting stage of the women’s 12.5-kilometer mass start on Saturday, Wierer pounced. She had followed Dorin Habert into the range, just a few seconds behind but enough to give the French skier enough time to start firing first. Wierer proceeded to clean her five targets with the fastest range time for the second-straight stage, then sped out of the range before Dorin Habert could react.
Wierer took the lead by 1.8 seconds, overcoming an early penalty in her first prone by cleaning the next two stages, while Dorin Habert chased her into the fourth of five loops. Over the next 2.5 k, the two race leaders skied together, exchanging a few words at one point. Dorin Habert, 29, hadn’t lost the race, but she had lost her edge over the gutsy Italian. A day earlier, Wierer placed third in the 7.5 k sprint with 9-for-10 shooting, and Dorin Habert finished 29th with four misses.
“I decided to attack today,” Dorin Habert told the IBU after the mass start. “My standing has not been very good at times this season, so I was more aggressive today.”
Meanwhile, she and Wierer skied about five seconds ahead of Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, who, like Dorin Habert, had cleaned all three stages up to that point to put herself in third.
The last time they entered the range, Wierer led Dorin Habert in to take the first shooting position. Dorin Habert stood on Point 2, and Soukalova on Point 3.
Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang! Wierer rattled off her shots, hitting all five targets with the fastest range time once again. She flew out of the range, again in first, but this time, Dorin Habert and Soukalova each missed one behind her. The penalty loop put Dorin Habert 30.6 seconds back in second while Soukalova followed about eight seconds later in third.
By that point, the race was essentially over. Barring any catastrophic last loop for Wierer, 30 seconds is simply tough for anyone to overcome in 2.5 k. And Wierer was racing to what ended up being the fourth-fastest overall course time.
While Dorin Habert reduced the deficit to 22.7 seconds with 0.7 k to go (while Soukalova skied 39.6 seconds back in third), Wierer raced to the finish uncontested for her third-career World Cup win in 36:50. Dorin Habert finished 20.8 seconds later in second, and Soukalova was 50.3 behind in third.
The win was Wierer’s best mass start result after placing sixth in the event two seasons ago in Pokljuka, Slovenia. An hour earlier, Italy’s Dominik Windisch won the men’s mass start in Canmore, and Wierer completed the Italian sweep with the women’s victory.
“I was so nervous for Dominik when I was watching his race,” Wierer told the IBU after her race. “This is a great day for the Italian team; this has never happened before. It is historic!”
While the winds were nowhere near as troublesome as during Friday’s sprint (nor were they as prevalent as during the men’s race earlier Saturday afternoon), the women’s mass start wasn’t without occasional gusts and light snow. Wierer explained she had trouble with zeroing before the race.
“I must have shot 10 times; I never do that, and it still was not very good,” she said. “So I went out there thinking it would either be good or horrible. I have never had a good mass start before, until today!”
Wierer led set the pace for the field early on, leading much of the first loop with Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Germany’s Miriam Gössner following close behind. On the first prone shooting, 13 women cleaned; Wierer was not one of them. She missed one and left the range in 14th, 15.8 seconds behind Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand in first. Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser trailed Hildebrand by 1.3 seconds and Russia’s Daria Virolaynen left the range 3.7 seconds back in third.
A color commentator for the IBU’s live online broadcast of the Canmore races, retired German biathlete Andrea Burke (formerly Henkel) noted that if you’re going to miss, it’s better to miss sooner than later.
By the next shooting stage, the number of athletes without a miss was down to six. Dorin Habert, Hildebrand, France’s Celia Aymonier, and Soukalova were among them.
Meanwhile, American Susan Dunklee fell out of contention and into 26th place (1:52 behind the leaders) with three penalties in the second stage (on top of one miss in the first prone). In the third shooting, she missed all five to drop to 30th and 4 1/2 minutes back.
“I’m not entirely sure what caused my shooting struggles today and why, but I don’t plan to analyze things too much yet,” Dunklee wrote in an email after finishing 30th, 6:24.9 back with 10 penalties (1+3+5+1). “Tomorrow is a new day and right now that is my focus.”
As she came through the finish more than a minute after Switzerland’s Selina Gasparin in 29th, she looked up at the crowd and shrugged.
“I was appreciative of all the North American fans still cheering me on as if I were winning the race,” Dunklee wrote. “It’s not every day that I get to race in front of a home crowd.”
The overall World Cup leader, Soukalova smiled as skied toward the finish in third, and had enough time to turn around and ski backwards over the line.
“A fairy tale,” she said of her season thus far. “I just try to focus on each race and have fun. That is the most important thing, to have fun.”
Mäkäräinen recovered from three early misses in the first stage and one more in the second prone to place fourth (+1:11) and Hildebrand missed one on each standing and finished fifth (+1:13.5). The German was less than a second ahead of France’s Anais Bescond in sixth (+1:14.4) with three misses (2+0+0+1).
For the final day of racing in Canmore, two different relays will be held: the single mixed relay (with Canada’s Julia Ransom and Nathan Smith, and for the U.S., Annelies Cook and Leif Nordgren) at 10:10 a.m. Mountain time, and the four-person mixed relay (with Canada’s Rosanna Crawford, Sarah Beaudry, Macx Davies, and Brendan Green; and for the U.S., Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Tim Burke, and Lowell Bailey) at 2:05 p.m. MT.
In the men’s mass start, Burke notched a season best in seventh, Smith was 16th and Bailey 20th. Stay tuned for a separate report on that race.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.