“It’s good to try a romantic atmosphere,” World Cup leader Gabriela Soukalová of the Czech Republic joked about the dark and cold course conditions at the end of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay in Presque Isle late Saturday afternoon, when the sun had long set behind the trees and hills of northern Maine for the final 6 k. “I appreciate it so much. I was thinking about my boyfriend,” she said in an post-race team interview with the IBU.
“Candles…” her teammate Eva Puskarcíková added.
The Czech women had every reason to be in a good mood. In the final race before the upcoming IBU World Championships in Oslo, Norway, their team had asserted its intention to be on the podium there in March, achieving the first relay victory of the season in a time of 1:07:11.0, with one penalty and 14 spare rounds.
After narrowly avoiding a penalty lap in the last shooting, anchor Veronika Vítková had a large enough lead to ski to the side of the track and look for a national flag for the final stretch, but none was immediately available from coaches or fans, so she celebrated across the line just by raising her arms, before her teammates hugged her at the finish.
The women’s relay was moved up from Sunday to Saturday due to extremely cold temperatures in the forecast, with a start time of 4:10 p.m. following the men’s relay, giving the athletes the rare experience of racing in the dark on the final loops, dimly lit by portable lights on a few sections of the course. (Evening Biathlon World Cup races are occasionally on the schedule, for example in Oberhof, Germany, but that course is equipped with large fixed floodlights.)
With the athletes emerging from the darkness into the slightly brighter Nordic Heritage Center stadium, the race for second and third place on the podium was decided in an exciting sprint finish between the relays from Germany, Ukraine, and Poland.
Germany’s exhausted anchor Karolin Horchler tried to rescue her once-comfortable lead after the final shooting that had diminished precariously into the finish, with a double-pole effort on the final meters before she collapsed across the line.
Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna passed her with quick skating steps to claim second place, 25.2 seconds behind the winners, with a team total of zero penalties and 12 spares. Pidhrushna edged Horchler by just 0.2 seconds as the Germans took third (+25.4), with one penalty and seven spares, after erasing a 30-second deficit on the final loop. Poland’s Krystyna Guzik came into the finish narrowly off the podium in fourth place (+26.0), with a team total of zero penalties and seven spares.
The U.S. with Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Clare Egan and Annelies Cook finished the race in 10th (+2:12.4), with one penalty and 12 spare rounds. It was their best result in a women’s relay this season.
Czech Republic joins this season’s other podium finishers — Ukraine, Italy, France, Germany, and Russia — as the favorites for the women’s relay in Olso, with a few more “dark horses” also in the mix.
After the flower ceremony, several women fielded questions at the indoor post-race press conference, still wearing protective tape on their cheeks and noses.
“Today’s race was very hard because of the very big cold,” Czech Republic’s starter Puscarcíková said. “My fingers were frozen. But I am happy we are first again. Last year we won in Oslo this time of the year. It’s very fantastic and unbelievable for me.”
“I had trouble because I shot my third bullet under the target,” Lucie Charvatová explained at the press conference. She had a penalty on her second relay leg and fell back to 11th, before tagging off 47.7 seconds back in ninth place. “After that I was so, so nervous. I ran fast and tried to do the best I could. But I am also happy.”
“I don’t know what I can say,” World Cup leader Soukalová said at the press conference, trying to explain how she had moved her team back into first place on the third leg, following two straight individual wins in Presque Isle. “It was a really fantastic weekend. It’s amazing. I was feeling really good during the race. I don’t remember when I [last] have been in the same shape. It’s a perfect performance before the World Championship.”
“It was very hard because on the track it was dark,” Vítková recalled of the anchor leg and the final shooting. “I have seen nothing. On the shooting range, too. And I was a little bit nervous, because I needed three extra [rounds of] ammunition.”
Ukraine, winner of the relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, earlier this season, was in fourth place with its lineup of Iryna Varvynets, Natalya Burdyga, Juliya Dzhyma and Pidhrushna for most of the race, before Pidhrushna moved her team up with the fastest skiing on the last loop, and beat Germany at the line.
“It’s difficult to recall a relay that was so close and tough,” a smiling Dzhyma said during the press conference, through a translator. “Maybe the one in Hochfilzen [where Ukraine finished third, though with a much larger gap to second and fourth place]. It was really interesting and tough, not just because of the close results, but also because of the frost in this cold weather. In the end we are really happy to be in second, and to be on the podium.”
“At the beginning of my leg, I couldn’t see any uphills, any downhills,” anchor Pidhrushna explained, via a translator. “It was like racing blind. When I came to the shooting range, my only thought was to shoot clean and not go to the penalty loop.”
“It’s already a legend,” a happy Pidhrushna later added in an interview with the IBU when asked about her final loop. “It was again a funny situation after the last shooting. I had no idea which place I was in, going away from the shooting range. One of our staff members shouted so loud, then I realized I was somewhere close, because I couldn’t see the screen, I couldn’t see anything because it was already dark. I just had to think that I was close so I had to fight for it again.”
“Krystyna [Guzik] from Poland was behind me, and we were running so fast to chase the German girl,” she explained. “But I couldn’t even think of doing that, actually.”
“I didn’t know what was happening behind me, I just tried to race,” Germany’s Horchler told ARD, after she had advanced her team from fifth to second, requiring one spare in prone and staying clean in her final shooting. “But I had brutal pain in my shins, and was already pushing into the downhill. I am really annoyed by that two-tenth of a second [at the finish]. But I am just pleased about my 0-5 shooting in standing, because with that I settled a few things in this competition so the relay could still make the podium.”
“Hats off to the organizers,” she added. “They put up makeshift lanterns, and I am happy about my prescription lenses in my glasses, otherwise it would not have been possible for me to see anything.”
“I as very nervous, because it’s been a long time since I took the starting position,” Germany’s Franziska Preuss said at the press conference. “The last time was Sochi [2014 Olympics, where Preuss crashed and got snow into her rifle sights, falling back far, as German failed to medal for the first time in an Olympic women’s relay]. But now I am really happy that it was a good race for me… I think nobody expected Germany on the podium today.”
Germany started a lineup without Franziska Hildebrand and Laura Dahlmeier, their two highest-ranked athletes on the World Cup.
“Temperatures were better today than yesterday,” second leg Luise Kummer told ARD. “We feared it would become really cold by now, but today it was bearable. And the audience is really participating with the action, so it was definitely fun. You actually get warm during the race. One would not believe that, in training we were also worried. But in normal competition it is no problem at all.”
“I just could not handle the standing position on the range here, and unfortunately also not today,” Germany’s third leg Miriam Gössner, who had her team’s penalty, told ARD. “I don’t know why. I really tried to do my best. In the prone shooting and out on the course I felt really, really good. So I think I could compensate for that penalty lap fairly well.”
Poland, with Magdalena Gwizdon, Monika Hojnisz, Weronika Nowakwska, and Guzik (formerly Palka) finished just 0.4 seconds off the podium, after losing the sprint against Ukraine and Germany.
“We had to fight not only with our rivals, but mainly with low temperatures,” Hojnisz later posted on Facebook, according to a translation, after she had avoided a penalty in her first prone shooting but lost about 45 seconds to the top. “I was not the best link in today’s relay, so thank you girls for your faith and fight to the last meter.”
“I held her until the end of the climb and tried to overtake on the flats,” Guzik said of Pidhrushna on the last loop, as told to Polish sports website SportoweFakty, according to a translation. “Unfortunately, none of the three attempts worked. Olena took it well tactically. It is a pity that the course was not a little bit longer, because I could fight to the finish. … I am sad that I could not lead us to a medal. We need this podium in the relay. I still believe that soon we will succeed.”
A number of teams started different lineups than they will likely have at World Championships, including France, which won the previous relay in Antholz, Italy, but on Saturday gave its top athlete, Marie Dorin Habert, a break. France finished sixth (+48.2), with one penalty and 13 spares, after Anaïs Chevalier had tagged her teammate Justine Braisaz in second place at the last exchange.
U.S. Achieves Season-Best 10th
Coming off a historic week for US Biathlon with Dunklee’s silver medal in the sprint and fifth place in the pursuit, the team’s leading woman was picked to start Sunday’s relay (after racing the second leg in the three prior relays this season), followed by Dreissigacker, Egan and Cook.
“We are still experimenting with the order,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “Last week’s mixed relay went well with myself leading and Han [Dreissigacker] going second so we tried that again.”
As for moving the race up to Saturday, Dunklee wrote, “I think most athletes would agree that moving the race to today was the right call in light of the cold forecast.”
But that made for a pretty hectic race day for the women, as they had very little time to prepare with the men’s relay only wrapping up about an hour before their own.
“Today was a great opportunity for dealing with unusual challenges on race day,” Dunklee explained. “We had some struggles getting to the venue on time, then I had a broken firing pin right before zero [target practice to adjust the rifle sights before the start], which is very tricky to replace, and finally 13 minutes before the start, I heard that the course got changed and didn’t get to preview it.”
“With the short turn around from the guys race, we only had 25 minutes to zero 4 people,” she continued. “I didn’t fit in more than 10-15 minutes of skiing warmup, a new record for me. Dealing with chaos is an extremely important skill for a biathlete to have and we all did well today in spite of the challenges.”
Dunklee’s performance didn’t seem to suffer much despite those unusual circumstances, she she used just one spare to clean the first prone stage, and another two in her standing bout. She also skied the fastest course time of all starters in 13:55.4, and second-best among every woman in the relay, behind France’s anchor, 19-year-old Braisaz.
Dunklee tagged off to Dreissigacker in fourth, only back 11.1 seconds behind Switzerland’s Selina Gasparin, who was then leading the pack (Switzerland went on to finish 12th).
For Dreissigacker, a regular member of the U.S. relays last year including at 2015 World Championships, it was her second World Cup relay of the season after spending some time on the second-tier IBU Cup, before returning to the World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, and Presque Isle, where she most recently placed 27th in the sprint and 24th in the pursuit.
Like Dunklee, she didn’t let the stressful race preparation get to her.
“It was definitely a little bit rushed today before the race for everyone,” she wrote in an email. “We had to rearrange things and it got a bit hectic. But it was fine for me anyways… a good adrenal warm-up, as I like to call it!”
Dreissigacker needed one spare in prone and two in standing, just like Dunklee, and lost a little more time on the course, handing off in seventh, 43.7 seconds behind the leaders.
“I am a little disappointed that I didn’t hit my last standing shot, and then took two spares to hit it, but it could have been worse!” Dreissigacker wrote. “I had a good battle with Austria [Lisa Theresa Hauser] and France [Anaïs Bescond] at the end of my leg which was fun and made me go hard.”
Egan, who had started the prior relay for the U.S. in Antholz, moved back to the third leg, which she had also raced in Ruhpolding and Hochfilzen earlier this season.
In Presque Isle, she had finished 32nd in the sprint and 23rd in the pursuit. She continued her solid recent shooting performances in Saturday’s prone stage, cleaning her targets to leave the range in seventh position (+41.4).
After moving up to sixth place on the next loop, Egan came into the standing stage fighting for position with France, Ukraine and Austria. There she was unable to hit her last target with her three spares, having to ski through the 150-meter penalty lap.
“The conditions for my standing shooting were fine, I am just not as solid in standing as I am in prone,” Egan wrote in an email. “I missed two from the clip and then fired the first spare accidentally before I was ready. Then I had two bullets for two targets and unfortunately I only hit the first one. I should have taken more time to make a perfect hit on my last shot.”
She left the range in 12th, and tagged off to Cook in that position, having lost an additional minute to the leaders by the exchange (+1:50.6).
Just like it was for her teammates, Cook’s race leadup was a bit hectic.
“The preparation was actually funny today,” Cook wrote in an email. “I did not get to ski the course before the race started, and the girls actually had to tell me that they took out a sketchy corner, so I had never even done our course before I was on it racing it.”
On the shooting range, she matched the performance of Dunklee and Dreissigacker, requiring one spare in her prone stage and two in standing, but had to overcome an additional challenge: the sun had set when the anchors were on their relay legs, and large sections of the course had fallen into darkness.
“I was glad that nothing crazy happened on the downhills because it was definitely a shadowy course, not like the huge floodlights that we are accustomed to,” Cook explained. “But I didn’t mind. It reminded me of how night races were growing up at my local ski area, with little light bulbs hanging over the course. The range was a bit dark and the big movie screen flashed really brightly while I was shooting prone, so the light changed drastically and suddenly and that was distracting. But it worked out okay.”
She was able to overtake two more relays, moving the U.S. up to 10th in the finish. The U.S. women were satisfied with their result, though believed there was still additional room for improvement.
“As a team, we all had okay shooting performances and it is exciting to see us move up so much already even without a great day,” Dunklee concluded. “Oslo will be exciting.”
“I think we are all happy with 10th since its our best relay of the year, but we also know we can do better and today was a good sign of that!” Dreissigacker wrote.
“Despite my penalty lap this was the best relay result we have had with this group of four athletes,” Egan explained. “Our previous best was 12th which we got twice last year (World Cup 6 Antholz, World Championships). It is also a season best. Of course we can still do better and intend to do so in Oslo.”
“I still know we can do better in the relay, but it is a hard, hard thing for everyone to have stellar races on the same day,” Cook concluded. “And luckily, we know that all we have to do is have a good normal day and we can be right up there.”
With Some New Faces, Canada 17th
Without Rosanna Crawford and Julia Ransom, Canada did not have two women in Presque Isle who will likely be part of the women’s relay at World Championships in Oslo. Crawford and Ransom started in all three other relays this season where the team finished 10th in Hochfilzen, and ninth in both Ruhpolding and Antholz.
In addition the team is missing Megan Tandy, who recently broke her wrist in Canmore, Alberta.
Instead, with veteran Zina Kocher (in her third relay this season), Emma Lunder (who had one relay start before in Hochfilzen), Audrey Vaillancourt and Erin Yungblut struggled on Saturday, quickly falling to the back of the field, with Kocher having to ski a penalty loop in her first prone.
After leaving the range in 16th out of 17 teams (with Norway and Slovakia pulling their teams before the start due to illness), Canada was never able to catch back up to the top 10, losing time to the leaders as the race progressed.
Kocher tagged off to Lunder 2:14.3 back, who then incurred another penalty in her prone stage (1+3, 0+1) to exchange 4:28.1 back in 17th place.
Vaillancourt then put in a strong performance on the range with two clean shooting stages, but was slower on the course and passed on the penultimate loop by the leading teams. She handed off to anchor Yungblut 6:38.6 back.
After requiring three spares to hit her targets (0+1, 0+2), Yungblut then was taken out of the race and scored as lapped in 17th position before her final loop.
On to Oslo
The athletes will now have two weeks of additional training and preparation, before traveling to Norway for the World Championships, beginning on Thursday, March 3 with the mixed relay.
- Annelies Cook
- Audrey Vaillancourt
- Clare Egan
- Czech Republic
- Emma Lunder
- Erin Yungblut
- Eva Puskarcikova
- Gabriela Soukalova
- Hannah Dreissigacker
- Iryna Varvynets
- Juliya Dzhyma
- Karolin Horchler
- Krystyna Guzik
- Lucie Charvátová
- Luise Kummer
- Magdalena Gwizdon
- Miriam Gossner
- Monika Hojnisz
- Natalya Burdyga
- Nordic Heritage Center
- Olena Pidhrushna
- Susan Dunklee
- US Biathlon
- Veronika Vitkova
- Weronika Nowakwska
- women's 4 x 6 k relay
- 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.