When eliminating all external variables, often the most consistent athletes come out on top in biathlon.
After a wind lottery strongly influenced the individual race of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup opening week in Östersund, Sweden on Wednesday, by Saturday the race course presented itself in near-perfect weather conditions with no wind, temperatures just below freezing point, freshly fallen snow from the prior night covering up most of the icy patches, and only a little fog moving in from the lake below.
And thus three athletes who already dominated last season’s IBU World Cup standings also claimed the positions on the podium in the women’s 7.5-kilomter sprint on Saturday.
With two clean shooting performances, France’s Marie Dorin Habert celebrated her next World Cup win in a time of 20:09.7 minutes. She only struggled a bit on her final shot trying to find the target for several seconds, with the TV broadcast showing her coach visibly relieved when she finally hit the shot.
“I am very happy about today’s race,” Habert said during the post-race press conference. “I was just thinking ‘speed, speed, speed, full speed’!”
“Shooting was perfect, too,” she added. “I had to fight a lot of things in the standing shoot[ing]. It was a hard shoot for me, a lot of tension. I am very happy to stay focused and just on the target.”
Starting later than Habert, Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen came closest to preventing the victory despite a miss in the standing stage (0+1) by skiing the second-fastest course time (+11.4). If her shape holds up, the Finn also plans to compete in cross-country skiing at her “home” World Championships in Lahti later this season, as she already did in Val di Fiemme in 2013 and at several national championships.
“Today the weather changed, so it was not so difficult anymore,” Mäkäräinen commented on her improved shooting performance during the press conference. “I changed my rifle stock in the spring, and have had some difficulties to get used to it in the wind. But I like it a lot in prone shooting and today I felt very comfortable, and that gave me a good start to the race. In standing I had one mistake, but I have to be happy with it.”
“I did not expect to be in the top three with one penalty,” she added. “I thought the race is quite tight. A lot of girls now ski fast. So I thought in these conditions I should shoot clean. I was happy when the coaches were telling me [out on the course] that I was still fighting for the top three.”
Behind her, the defending overall World Cup champion Gabriela Koukalová, of the Czech Republic (formerly Soukalová, before her marriage to Czech badminton Olympian Petr Koukal this summer) made up for her seven misses in the individual race earlier this week by shooting clean this time to claim the third place (+19.9). She had left the range for the final lap just 4.9 seconds behind Habert, but was unable to keep up on the course.
“It is always very nice to be in top five,” Koukalová said during the press conference.
“I didn’t have any expectations before. A lot of people were asking me about my ambitions for this season. But I don’t want to be under pressure, so I didn’t expect [anything]…I am very happy about today’s result, it’s many times better than the last race.”
Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who had started the race wearing the “yellow bib” of the World Cup leader for the first time in her career (and as the first German athlete since Magdalena Neuner), finished fourth, just six seconds off the podium (+25.7). She was in a great position to pass even Habert coming into the final stage in first place, but missed the very last shot of her competition forcing her to ski through the penalty lap.
“I don’t have to hide today with the third-best course time,” Dahlmeier told German TV broadcaster ARD after the race. “Today there were outstanding conditions on the shooting range. I knew that you would likely need the zero [misses] for the podium … For that last shot I also stood firm, but I maybe was back out on the course again with my head already. That was the problem. I would have had to keep my concentration high. That happens.”
Thus the same women who had placed at the top in last season’s IBU World Cup standings also started out strong for this year’s season. Only Italy’s Dorothea Wierer who was third in the overall was missing from the usual suspects, finishing 19th after two misses in the standing stage (0+2, +1:16.0)
Four North Americans Qualify for Pursuit
Susan Dunklee achieved the best result for a North American biathlete in the women’s sprint on Saturday, finishing in 27th, 1:29.9 back from Habert, with two penalty laps (1+1). Dunklee also posted the 26th best course time.
“My experience on the shooting range felt more routine today and there was nothing notable about my misses,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “I am very happy with my shooting speed. Right now my ski speed isn’t quite there yet – I’m in ‘training shape’ rather than ‘race shape’ but that is typical for me in the early season and it will change with more race starts.”
“Absolutely no wind today. Colder. Light fog came in partway through the race but not thick enough to obscure targets,” Dunklee explained. “Fresh snow that slowed the tracks down. Still some icy patches to watch out for underneath, but a huge improvement compared to the day of the individual.”
Julia Ransom led the Canadians in 38th place (+1:54.1) thanks to a clean shooting performance (0+0), one of 13 athletes to achieve that on Saturday. But her overall course time, which ranked 70th, kept her from the top 30.
US Biathlon’s Clare Egan placed 44th (+2:04.1) after incurring two penalties in her standing shooting that let her fall behind a top 30 position which she had achieved in her prone shooting (0+2).
Her teammate Joanne Reid also missed two shots in standing after a clean prone stage and placed 53rd (0+2, +2:21.2). On Wednesday, she scored her first World Cup points in the individual race to start out her second season (and first full one) on the World Cup team.
Biathlon Canada’s Rosanna Crawford finished 64th with one miss in each shooting stage (1+1, +2:40.3). Her teammate Megan Tandy was 78th (0+2, +3:09.1) and Sarah Beaudry placed 97th (2+0, +3:54.2) among 103 starters.
The times back to the winner from Saturday’s sprint will carry over into the pursuit race on Sunday.
“I think it will be a very good fight with all the girls tomorrow,” Habert predicted during the press conference. “I will try to be focused on my race. But I like the pursuit and mass start because you are not alone.”
For the Americans, Dunklee also looks forward to that race: “All three of our women qualified for tomorrow’s pursuit and we are thrilled!”
For Canada, only Ransom qualified in the top 60.
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.