Something in the air in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, just works for Kaisa Mäkäräinen. Could be the Siberian temperatures, which reached a high of about 19 degrees Fahrenheit during race time on Thursday. Could be the time of year. Either way, the Finnish biathlete won the final IBU World Cup sprint of the season, beating overall World Cup leader Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic by 3.1 seconds in 20:42.3. Mäkäräinen won the same race — the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint in Khanty last year — and this year it marked her third World Cup victory of the season.
Mäkäräinen started 17th and after a clean prone and one miss standing, she left the range in second place, trailing Norway’s Marte Olsbu (in bib 14) by six seconds. Mäkäräinen bested the 25-year-old Norwegian by 4.8 seconds with the fastest last loop. In fact, out of 80 women in the race, Mäkäräinen was the fastest on every loop. That put her first at the finish despite a penalty, leaving Soukalova, the 38th starter who shot clean in both stages, and others to chase her down.
Ultimately, Soukalova came up 3.1 seconds short. She left the range for the last time with a 9.8-second lead on Mäkäräinen, but tangled skis with Russia’s Svetlana Sleptsova, who was headed for the penalty loop.
“I think there was no chance to hear me because of the spectators,” Soukalova told German broadcaster ZDF afterward. “It happens sometimes, what can I do?”
Soukalova’s final loop time ranked second fastest to Mäkäräinen by 13 seconds, and she settled for second place, 1.7 seconds ahead of Olsbu. Regardless, she said that near-crash fueled her on her last loop.
“I was very sad for it, but maybe that’s the reason why I tried to go a little bit faster than usual,” Soukalova said. “So I think it’s one of the best races of my life. I am so happy for it.”
Sleptsova ended up 67th with two penalties, one in prone and another in standing.
Meanwhile, Olsbu achieved her first-ever World Cup podium in third with perfect 10-for-10 shooting.
“It feels very good. I am very motivated after my relay leg in Oslo,” Olsbu said at a post-race press conference, referring to World Championships when she anchored Norway to gold in the women’s relay on March 11. “My shooting in the World Championships was not good, so I was happy about my clean shooting today.”
For Mäkäräinen, it marked her second-consecutive sprint win in Khanty and 18th career World Cup victory.
“I am a little surprised that it is possible to win the race with one penalty,” she said. “I like the competitions here in Khanty. It was great to win a medal on the last day in Oslo, I was also quite tired, but I slept until 12 o’clock. I think it was my key to victory today.”
At the last race of World Championships, the 12.5 k mass start on Sunday, March 13, Mäkäräinen placed third behind France’s Marie Dorin Habert and Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, respectively.
Four days later, they were back at it again in the final World Cup of the season — four time zones east.
“The chilly temperatures, the 4 hour time change and the evening race schedule have all been a shock to the system,” American Susan Dunklee wrote in an email after placing 25th in Thursday’s sprint in Khanty. She finished 1:19.8 back from Mäkäräinen with two prone penalties.
“In Oslo I was in the best shape of my life and I was looking forward to these last few World Cup races as chances to chase after more top tens, maybe even a podium,” Dunklee added. “Today certainly wasn’t what I had hoped for. To be competitive in this tight field you need near perfect shooting but today I botched my prone stage and shot very slowly.”
While her overall course time ranked 10th fastest, her range time was 70th.
“I also struggled on skis the last two laps and couldn’t capitalize on a great ride behind Kaisa,” Dunklee explained. “Even with a rough start, it’s always worth fighting for every second until the finish, especially with pursuit start positions on the line. I know there are a lot of tired ladies here, both physically and mentally, so I see opportunity ahead in these last two races.”
Going into the final individual race of the season, Saturday’s pursuit, Dunklee is 13th overall in the World Cup standings — the best ranking of any U.S. female biathlete in history.
She qualified well within the pursuit’s top 60, and will be joined by Canada’s Julia Ransom, who placed 54th (+2:07) on Thursday with one standing penalty.
American Clare Egan tied Sweden’s Linn Persson for 63rd (+2:38.9) with three standing misses. Canada’s Rosanna Crawford missed two on each bout for a total of four penalties and finished 70th.
“After getting off to a promising start with perfect prone shooting and fast skiing, I tied my worst shooting performance of the year with three standing penalties and missed qualifying for the pursuit by three places,” Egan said in a US Biathlon press release. “This loss really hurts. I can only wish my teammates success now.”
The men’s 10 k sprint starts Friday at 9:15 a.m. Eastern time, and can be watched live on Eurovision with English commentary by Chad Salmela.
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
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.