Last year’s defending overall World Cup champion Gabriela Koukalová of the Czech Republic also had started out fairly well into the new season during the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup opening week in Östersund, Sweden. But a victory was still missing.
She corrected that on Sunday, moving up from the third starting position, based on her sprint result, to the top of the podium in the women’s 10-kilometer pursuit, in a time of 31:43.3 with only one penalty lap (0+0+1+0).
Following strong gales in the individual and nearly no wind in the sprint races, for the pursuit the conditions were somewhere in between those extremes, manageable but still forcing a number of competitors into the penalty lap in each of the four shooting stages (in pursuit races the athletes are not allowed to use spare rounds).
By the end of the first shooting stage, Koukalová took the lead and never gave it up. Based on course time, she was seventh fastest, but her direct pursuers incurred more penalty laps. Even so, they didn’t make it easy for her.
“I didn’t expect that I can race with Kaisa [Mäkäräinen] so I just tried to concentrate for the last shooting,” Koukalová, formerly Soukalová, explained during the post-race press conference. “I didn’t feel so strong… It was like walking in hell, mainly the last two loops.”
Asked if she looked back over her shoulder repeatedly on the final lap, she smiled broadly: “I don’t know, because I don’t remember nothing what happened there.”
Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier managed to defend the “yellow bib” distinguishing the current World Cup leader for a third day, this time finishing in second place, just 8.4 seconds behind Koukalová. After incurring two penalties during the race (0+1+1+0), Dahlmeier made up about ten seconds on Koukalová on the final lap, but was not able to completely close the gap.
“I got instructed by the coaches that I should try and catch up to Gabi, that she was not going as fast anymore,” Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ARD after the race. “I got close on the downhill. I tried everything, but the last loop is only 2 kilometers, maybe if it were 500 meters longer… But I am super-happy about the second place.”
Asked in the press conference about competing for overall World Cup title this season, Dahlmeier explained, “My aim is to stay healthy and to have enough power for every race. I will try, but we will see how the season goes. Perhaps I have to miss one, but my aim is to compete in all races… We can talk about it in Oslo [the World Cup final in March 2017].”
Also back on the podium was another familiar face with Italy’s Dorothea Wierer, third in the World Cup standings last year, who, by her standards, had experienced a slow start into the new season. Starting in 19th due to her sprint result, she quickly began to overtake athletes in front of her thanks to her trademark fast-and-accurate shooting. In the finish, her chase was rewarded with a third place, 21.4 seconds back (0+0+0+0). Still, Wierer was a bit surprised to have regained her form so quickly within the opening weekend.
“Yesterday evening I just told my trainers that tomorrow I will make four times zero [misses], but I thought I was kidding,” the happy Italian remarked during the press conference. “But today it was like that … It was not so difficult [on the shooting range], but also yesterday it was not difficult but then I had two [misses] in the last shooting.”
After her last standing stage in the pursuit, Wierer had gone back on the course in second place, but the faster skier Dahlmeier was just behind her and managed to pass her on the final lap.
“That’s the fascination of biathlon … I saw she had shot clean and skied out of the range a bit ahead of me,” Dahlmeier told ARD. “I already noticed in the prior loops that we had top equipment today, and thought that I could catch her on the downhill. That worked faster than expected. Then I heard we should try to catch Gabi … also from the Italian coaches, and I started the flight ahead.“
“My coach said ‘she is coming behind you, she is pushing hard’. I was losing Laura on the downhill, but I was also looking back,” Wierer explained.
The true surprise of the race was the 21-year-old Lena Häcki of Switzerland, who had already achieved a strong result with a 12th place in the sprint, and on Sunday moved up even further with four clean stages, an achievement only matched by Wierer among the 60 starters. Häcki celebrated across the finish line, just 36.3 seconds behind the winner and 15 seconds off the podium. It was the best World Cup result of her career and her first individual result in the top 10.
“Unbelievable, I had tears in my eyes,” Häcki told Swiss broadcaster SRF. “All the top stars congratulated me … I can only remember half of it. It’s like a movie with a happy end that is moving past me, and I can’t believe yet that this is my real life.”
She credited her strong shooting performance to training with a mental coach.
“I am simply overwhelmed, I never would have expected this result”, she added after her first World Cup flower ceremony, according to a Swiss Ski Federation press release.
Fifth place went to the runner-up from the sprint race, Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen (1+1+0+2, +52.7). For a large part of the race she had held a position on the podium. But two penalties in her final shooting dropped her back to sixth when all other athletes in her vicinity shot clean, and despite recording the best course time again the strong skier was only able to make up one more place on the last lap overtaking Austria’s Lisa Hauser who finished sixth (0+0+1+0, +1:15.5).
The French sprint winner Marie Dorin Habert fell back to seventh place (+1:15.6), losing her lead with two misses in the first stage before incurring four more penalties (2+1+2+1).
Dunklee Up to 22nd, Egan in 30th
Leading the North Americans, Susan Dunklee jockeyed with a Swiss athlete on her final lap, but instead of the young Häcki it was the more experienced Selina Gasparin. Dunklee’s race had not started off well; she fell back to 40th after two misses in each of the prone shooting stages.
“I don’t think the wind was all that tricky; the mistakes are my own fault,” Dunklee wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “On one of my misses my trigger went off a little early but I’m not sure about the others.”
She managed to catch up again, thanks to fast skiing (with the 17th-fastest overall course time) and a clean third shooting stage in standing, before incurring another penalty in her final shooting and finishing in 22nd place (+2:55.7, 2+2+0+1).
“Throughout the race I had plenty of people to chase and that kept me motivated,” she wrote. “I did catch a ride for half a loop behind my teammate Clare. I had a close battle to finish with Selina Gasparin and she out-sprinted me today, but I look forward to challenging her again soon.”
Teammate Clare Egan moved up to 30th place after starting in the 44th position from her sprint result. She began the race with two clean prone shootings advancing to the 23rd position, before falling back a few places again with three misses in the standing stages (0+0+1+2, +3:35.4).
In an email, Egan described the wind during the pursuit as “totally manageable”.
“My prone execution has been really solid lately,” she wrote. “I’m able to work smart even when tired or under pressure. In standing, however, I am still working up to that point. Especially towards the end of a race when I am more fatigued and my mind isn’t as sharp, and perhaps I feel more pressure because I am aware of my result, it is easy to lose focus on the shooting process. I need more practice to find the right balance between thinking through my actions and overthinking them.”
Combined with the 26th-best course time, this resulted in Egan’s second-best finish in a World Cup pursuit, after a 23rd place last season in Presque Isle, Maine.
“I felt very depleted warming up today, after traveling and then doing 4 races in the last week,” Egan explained. “My wax crew did an excellent job today and definitely gave me an advantage – I was gliding past everyone on the downhills so I was able to pick up a few places just from having the fast skis… I was able to fight for top-30 on my last lap and won a sprint between 4 people in the finish. I’m proud of all my results from this week and looking forward to learning from these experiences and moving up throughout the season!”
The third U.S. woman, Joanne Reid had qualified for her first World Cup pursuit with a 53rd place in the sprint, and after moving up slightly, she finished the day in 47th (+4:59.6) with a not flawless but consistent shooting performance (1+1+1+1).
Julia Ransom, the lone Canadian to qualify for the women’s pursuit, started in 38th but lost ground quickly due to two penalties in the first stage. At the end of the day, Ransom is known for her secure shooting, had a whopping eight penalties (2+0+4+2). Only Germany’s Miriam Gössner had more with nine. Ransom finished her day down 20 positions in 58th (+6:36.8).
The IBU World Cup resumes on Friday, Dec. 9, with sprint races in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
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.