“That’s just biathlon for you,” biathletes often like to say when trying to explain the drastic ups and downs that are typical in their sport, both within one race and over the longer timeframes of a season or even a career.
On Saturday in a surprising race outcome that should give hope to many biathletes on the fringes of the World Cup level struggling with these constant shifts, Germany’s 30-year-old Nadine Horchler achieved the first victory and first podium of her career in the women’s 12.5-kilometer mass start at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Antholz, Italy.
For years, Horchler had been in and out of the German World Cup team, frequently being relegated to the second-tier IBU Cup. Widely regarded as a consistent shooter, she struggled to get her skiing speed up to a level where she could be competitive in World Cup races.
At times, she had to deal with being replaced by her younger sister Karolin on the team, and lost her “cadre” status, having to train and race as a self-funded athlete.
But in beautiful weather conditions on Saturday, Horchler was not only one of two athletes to hit all 20 targets in the four-stage race, but also clung to the ski tails of Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová on the last loop, the winner of the first two mass starts and last season’s overall World Cup champion.
Up the last short climb leading into the bustling Antholz arena with about 20,000 screaming spectators, Horchler passed Koukalová and put a small gap on her, celebrating as she crossed the finish line first in a time of 36:11.5 minutes.
“I just had to wipe away a tear because I am so happy,” Horchler told German broadcaster ZDF. “On the last loop I just went for it come hell or high water … I noticed I was still feeling relatively well and skied up to her. … On the downhills I looked behind me and saw the others were getting close and the two of us had to hurry. Then I just passed her and hoped I would get to the finish line. And then the whole stadium was shaking. I could no longer hear my own heartbeat or my breath. Incredible.”
On the finishing stretch, her teammate and current overall World Cup leader Laura Dahlmeier secured the second spot on the podium for Germany, finishing 3.1 seconds after Horchler with three penalties. Dahlmeier also caught and passed Koukalová, who finished third (+8.0) with two penalties.
“I can very well remember winning my first race,” Dahlmeier told ZDF in an interview while standing next to Horchler. “That is something very special for every athlete. I am happy that Nadine managed to show that today, that was a long time in the making. You can really see that we have a strong team, and it’s beautiful so many girls can fight for the positions at the top … She clearly was the number one today.”
“I am very happy, because the beginning of the race was very hard. I had to change my poles three times,” Koukalová explained at the post-race press conference. “I am very happy for my standing shooting … There was no chance to race with Laura, she was too close to me after the last shooting. And I had the expectation that Nadine is many times stronger than me for the finish, so that’s fine.”
Other overall World Cup contenders also had a good race, just missing the podium. Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen, who had dominated the races in Ruhpolding, Germany, a week ago, finished fourth (+13.5) with four penalties and the best-ranked course time. Behind her, France’s Marie Dorin Habert took fifth (+19.0) with four penalties.
Racing in front of her home crowd, Italy’s Alexia Runggaldier followed up her first career podium in the 15 k individual on Thursday with a sixth place (+24.1) with one penalty. Sweden’s Anna Magnusson took seventh (+26.4) with one penalty for a career best, after leaving the range for the last time in third behind Koukalová and Horchler.
“I am really happy,” 21-year-old Magnusson told the IBU in an interview. “It was a crazy race, and so much fun to ski in the top … I was number three or four, and I knew there [were] many people behind me, so I just had to push myself really hard. I am really happy about the seventh place… In a couple of years we will be on top.”
Norway’s Kaia Wøien Nicolaisen in ninth place (+27.9) was the only other competitor besides Horchler without any misses, which helped her achieve her second-best World Cup result.
Starting in bib 30 at the back of the field, Horchler originally hadn’t qualified to compete in the elite mass start competition, but was called up from a “reserve standby list” thanks to her 19th place in the women’s individual race on Thursday, after Russia’s Olga Podchufarova had to cancel her start. Next up in line on the list would have been Biathlon Canada’s Emma Lunder, who achieved a career-best 21st in Thursday’s 15 k.
“I traveled here with a good feeling,” Horchler told ZDF. “In the individual I thought, ‘good place, but one miss too many,’ and today I just had nothing to lose. Yesterday I was very relaxed because I did not really expect to get a start, and so I am overjoyed today.”
Horchler’s previous best individual results had been two fifth places in a sprint and pursuit, also achieved in Antholz in one weekend of the 2012/13 season. Eager to qualify for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi she lost much of the season to overtraining, and already considered a career after biathlon completing an education as a nonmedical practitioner for psychotherapy.
But Horchler decided to give it one more shot, and last season won the overall IBU Cup (the equivalent to what Koukalová achieved for the World Cup) and a gold medal in the sprint at the 2016 Open European Championships in Tyumen, Russia, sharing the podium with her sister.
And despite those career highlights, she was not nominated to Germany’s 2016/2017 World Cup team, once again beginning her season on the IBU Cup before receiving her first call-up for the races in Oberhof, Germany, where she achieved 35th in the sprint and 17th in the pursuit. But the rollercoaster continued and in Ruhpolding she had to sit out again, before receiving another chance in Antholz when teammate Franziska Preuss got sick.
“I don’t know yet,” Horchler said at the press conference when asked what this victory could mean for her career. “It is amazing. Last week I was in the IBU Cup [in Arber, Germany], now I am here and I sit between Laura and Gabi, it’s unbelievable … My plan was that I drive to the [European Championships] on Monday, and now I don’t know.”
Now the late bloomer might even be a candidate for next month’s World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, which would only be the second team nomination of her career after one selection in 2013.
Dunklee Takes the Lead, Briefly
US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee, the only North American qualified for the women’s mass start, had the best first prone stage and briefly took the lead. In that first stage, she shot clean and second fastest of all competitors, returning to the course first, 2.7 seconds ahead of Russia’s Tatiana Akimova.
But similar to the last mass start in Oberhof two weeks ago, where Dunklee was third halfway through, she wasn’t able to hold it. In the next stage, the American missed two shots, falling back to 14th position. With three more misses (0+2+2+1) she fell back further to 25th, before being able to overtake France’s Anaïs Bescond on the final loop to finish 24th, 1:36.1 behind the winner Horchler. Dunklee skied the 16th-ranked course time overall.
“It was incredibly satisfying to shoot fast and clean and leave the range in first after the first shooting,” Dunklee said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “I hope to build on that in the future and follow it up with a better shooting percentage. My skiing is not at its sharpest; my body is feeling the strain of the high altitude and the intense race schedule.”
Leading a race before falling back with penalties. Winning a race you were not even originally slated to compete in. That’s just biathlon.
The IBU World Cup in Antholz concludes with the women’s 4 x 6 k relay and men’s 15 k mass start on Sunday.
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.