Six women went out closely together for the final loop of the 10-kilometer pursuit at the International Biathlon Union’s (IBU) final World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The last one of the group, though only 4.6 seconds back, was Kaisa Mäkäräinen.
But by the finish, the 33-year-old Finn had overtaken everyone to secure her second victory in as many days in 30:06.7 with two penalties (1+0+1+0), following up on her win in Thursday’s sprint.
It was Mäkäräinen’s 19th World Cup victory and her fourth one of the season.
“I am really happy with my result today,” Mäkäräinen said at the post-race press conference. “I think two penalties for me is OK. It’s 90 percent. It’s better than my average, so I have to be satisfied with it. I was happy that the distance was not longer today, because it was quite tight in the end.”
France’s Marie Dorin Habert, the big winner at World Championships in Oslo, Norway, earlier this month with six medals including three gold, finished just 1.5 seconds behind her, with one penalty (0+0+0+1). In Oslo, Mäkäräinen earned bronze in the mass start.
Italy’s Dorothea Wierer secured third place (+5.7) after outsprinting the Czech Republic’s Gabriela Soukalová and Germany’s Franziska Preuss. Wierer finished with one penalty (0+0+1+0).
Despite missing the podium by 0.8 seconds, Soukalová, who had two penalties (1+0+0+1), still achieved the ultimate season-long victory by securing the overall World Cup title, ahead of Dorin Habert and Wierer.
Soukalová would have required at least the ninth place to do so already before the final mass start, and was the most consistent athlete throughout a season where she never placed worse than 11th (the pursuit in Oslo) in a race.
“Words are missing in this moment,” Soukalová told German TV broadcaster ZDF immediately after the race. “It’s very emotional. I am so happy for this. It’s very nice to have the Globe [trophy]. It’s awesome.”
Asked if she had been thinking about the World Cup title during the race, she added: “Before the last shooting maybe. That was the reason why I did a mistake.”
“It’s one of the biggest dreams of my life,” she later said in an interview with the IBU. ”I think I will never forget this moment. It was the main goal of the season. I am so happy, because World Championships in Oslo was a little bit unlucky for me.”
Depending on your historical perspective, this was the first or second biathlon World Cup title for the Czech Republic, after Jiřína Adamičková-Pelcová from the precursor state of Czechoslovakia (which later split up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia) also won the women’s World Cup in the 1989/1990 season more than 25 years ago.
In addition to the “big Crystal Globe” for the overall title, Soukalová also won the “small globe” discipline titles for the sprint and pursuit this week, and could still win the mass start discipline title on Sunday, which she currently leads.
“This is quite fun, I would say,” Mäkäräinen, a two-time overall World Cup winner, said of Saturday’s race and the last loop during the press conference. “Even if it feels heavy on the tracks. I like this sport!”
Reflecting on her fast skiing and still being in great shape just as the World Cup season ends, Mäkäräinen explained how she intends to close out her year.
“I think I will take part in cross-country Finnish championships, and not biathlon,” she said. “It’s more of a challenge for me. I will also make one classic race there again. I think that will be a good finish to this season.”
Dorin Habert left the range in first place after the final shooting, but Mäkäräinen quickly passed her and the French biathlete was unable to keep up.
“Kaisa was so strong,” Dorin Habert said at press conference. “When she passed us, we could not do anything. She was so fast. I just tried to race with the other girls.”
Preuss had taken the lead of the chase group behind Mäkäräinen out of a long one-minute downhill section, but was overtaken and boxed out by Dorin Habert, Wierer and Soukalová before the final climb. Dorin Habert created a small gap to the rest of the pack out of the climb into the arena to secure the second place, and Wierer won the three-women sprint for bronze thanks to excellent positioning on the last narrow turns in the arena.
“It was really a tough race,” Wierer said at the press conference. “When I went out from the last shooting range … we were six I think. Everybody passed me, and I was only saying ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’… I am really happy that I made the third place today, because I was sure I would arrive sixth or something like that.”
Losing out in the finish sprint with Wierer and Soukalová, Germany’s Preuss finished fifth (+6.6 seconds with one penalty, and just 0.1 behind Soukalová).
“Khanty is the last competition on the World Cup, and somehow I am always able to bring out my last remaining energy here,” Preuss told ZDF. “The course suits me really well, and I am happy with the shooting range today. It’s cool to end the season like this.”
“Before the final climb there is a long descent,” she said of the last loop. “Someone always came out of the draft, and when I was in front I knew, ‘Oh now, they’ll surely pass me again.’ And then they were ahead on the climb, and it’s really difficult to overtake there … I already noticed during the climb I couldn’t quite keep up, but I am nevertheless completely satisfied with the fifth place.”
Norway’s Fanny Horn Birkeland placed sixth (+13.1, with one penalty) as the last athlete from the top group that left the range closely together onto the final loop.
Before the race, the organizers in Khanty had asked spectators and athletes for a minute of silence for the victims of a plane crash in southern Russia, and the Russian biathlon team competed with black ribbons on their arms on Saturday.
“The crowd did observe a moment of silence for the crash victims,” American Susan Dunklee wrote in an email. “During the race, they brought their same great energy they always bring here. This is one of the loudest stadiums that we race in.”
Dunklee 22nd, Ransom Knocks Off 20 Places with Clean Shooting
Dunklee started the pursuit in 25th and initially shot clean in both of her prone stages. This moved her up all the way to 15th place, just 41.4 seconds behind the leader when she left the range.
On the track, she was able to keep up with the top of the field, overall skiing the fourth-fastest course time, and just half a second slower than the winner Mäkäräinen.
“I get the sense that practically everyone is exhausted, physically and mentally,” Dunklee wrote. “I am fighting off a sore throat but my energy levels felt good today and I am still hungry to compete. I often do well relative to the field when we hit this point in the season.”
But then in the first standing shooting, her race took a turn for the worse when she missed three targets.
“There was nothing difficult about the conditions for my third stage,” Dunklee wrote of that stage. “I approached that stage the same way I approached all the others. It was a simple case of me pulling the trigger when the rifle wasn’t pointed at the center of the target.”
Those penalties set her back more than an additional minute, and she set back out on the course in 23rd and was unable to make up the deficit.
In the last standing shooting, she incurred another penalty and left the range in 25th, before making up three positions on the final loop to finish 22nd (+2:13.2) with four total penalties.
Canada’s Julia Ransom as the only other North American starter in the pursuit had a perfect day on the shooting range, cleaning all of her targets in the four-stage race.
Earlier this season, Ransom also achieved 20-for-20 shooting at the pursuit in Antholz, Italy, as well as in the 15 k individual at the World Championships earlier this month. Both performances put her within the top 20 of those races; on Saturday, she picked off 20 places after starting 54th to finish 34th (+2:56.5).
Of 57 starters, Ransom was one of three women to shoot clean. Ukraine’s Yuliia Dzhima did so to place ninth, and Sweden’s Mona Brorsson finished 24th.
The two other North American starters at the World Cup in Khanty, Canada’s Rosanna Crawford and American Clare Egan did not make the top 60 to qualify for the pursuit. Dunklee is the lone North American woman qualified for Sunday’s mass start, the final race of the World Cup season.
“The course here is one of my favorites because of the good climbs and I especially like the hilly 2.5 km loop that we’ll use tomorrow,” Dunklee concluded in her email.
The ninth and final World Cup of the season ends with the men’s and women’s mass starts on Sunday. The women’s 12.5 k mass start begins at 5:20 a.m. Eastern, followed by the men’s 15 k mass start, with Americans Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey racing, at 8 a.m. Both races will be streamed live on Eurovision.
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.