To nobody’s surprise, Germany came out on top in the women’s World Cup relay in PyeongChang, South Korea, where biathletes are checking out next year’s Olympic venue.
Nadine Horchler, Maren Hammerschmidt, Denise Herrman, and Franziska Hildebrand cruised to 22.8-second win over Norway in the 4 x 6 k event, completing a clean five-for-five sweep of all the relays this season despite resting top star Laura Dahlmeier and relay regular Vanessa Hinz.
Sure, France made a valiant effort to best the Germans, and nearly succeeded, before Celia Aymonier – who had come into the last shooting even with Hildebrand – was stuck with two penalty loops. After that disaster, the French ended up sixth.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was to see Canada constantly in the podium mix through three of four legs of the relay. Canada’s best-ever women’s relay finish, fourth place, came in 2014, and so far this season their results had landed between 10th and 18th place.
Yet several team members were feeling the best on skis that they had all season, and Rosanna Crawford, Julia Ransom, Megan Tandy, and Emma Lunder combined for just seven spare rounds and no penalty loops, tying them for the best shooting of the day with Sweden.
“It has been a bit disappointing for us this year in relays,” Crawford wrote in an email. “In the first two relays we only used four and three spares total for the team, but we were really missing the ski speed. So it’s nice to have things come around for the final relay.”
Crawford started out by using four spare rounds, more than half the team’s total, and yet found herself constantly at the front of the race. She left the standing stage in tenth, and tagged off even with Anais Chevalier of France in first place.
“Even though I was quite disappointed with my shooting and needing four spares, it felt amazing to be able to ask my body to go faster and for it to respond,” Crawford wrote. “My last loop was really great… I just keep chasing each woman down, until it was just me and France!”
Crawford actually had the fastest ski time of all scramble-leg athletes. With that as a start, Ransom took the tag and cleaned both stages, although she said that doing so was harder than it looked.
“Today I had to work very hard for every standing shot,” she explained in an email. “It definitely wasn’t an easy shooting day for me (regaining my confidence after the relay at World Campionships). However, I was so happy to pull it together and hit them all. It’s a confidence-booster for me for the next two weekends of racing.”
Ransom’s confidence was also boosted by the previous day’s pursuit, where she had clocked the 25th-fastest ski time. For several loops, she skied with Germany’s Hammerschmidt and France’s Anais Bescond.
“Yesterday’s pursuit ski speed proved to me that I can really trust my fitness and perhaps push for faster times,” she wrote. “Skiing today with Anais and Maren felt comfortable! I felt like I belonged there.”
On the final loop of their relay leg, Hammerschmidt put the hammer down and left Bescond and Ransom behind. But Ransom still tagged off in third, 17 seconds behind Hammerschmidt and 2.4 seconds behind Bescond.
Tandy cleaned prone, regaining second place as other teams struggled on the range.
“When I left prone in second position I was pretty excited, but also a little bit surprised and relieved that I was still up there,” she wrote. “I didn’t feel too nervous, I mostly felt determined and excited. I was just reminding myself of my own game plan: how I wanted to ski, what I wanted to focus on during shooting.”
Tandy then used a spare in standing; she tagged off in fourth, 36 seconds behind the leaders. While she had felt good in the pursuit, her legs lost her a few places on the trails in the relay.
“I felt much more tired today than yesterday and it was a very tough fight out there,” she wrote in an email. “My poor legs were just done…I guess three races with a cold that to you! But I was composed on the shooting range, handled the wind well and gave it my best effort. Of course I wish I hadn’t missed my last standing shot, but I can be satisfied with one spare.”
That left it to Lunder to either win or lose sight of a podium position. For Lunder, the newest member of Canada’s World Cup team, it was a new experience.
“I’ve definitely never been tagged in a position like this in a World Cup relay before,” she wrote in an email. “Although it was a bit nerve-wracking to continue seeing Canada in the top three, I decided to just see what I could do today and not worry about any result or placing. I was pretty happy with how I handled things – I was our World Champs anchor as well, so that was a good practice run for today.”
Like Tandy, Lunder had been feeling under the weather, and got sick after World Championships. The top three slipped away, more because of skiing than shooting. Lunder used two spares in prone, but then quickly cleaned standing. She simply couldn’t hold her position on the trails.
“My skiing has felt quite weak this week, but even with slow skiing I’m happy to have brought my shooting up to a higher level,” she wrote. “I definitely felt a bit shaky in prone, but after hitting my two spares I was fairly confident in the rest of the race. I’ve been so happy with my consistent standing this year, and knew if I just focused on my cues it would be a good shooting bout, which it was.”
The team was thrilled to hang on to an eighth-place finish (+ 1:34.0) at the end of the day, even if some members wished they had skied or shot better.
“I am really proud of our women’s team right now,” Crawford wrote. “Julia did an incredible job skiing with Anais [Bescond] and cleaning both stages, Megan was also clutch on the range and holding her own on the skis, and Emma has been so amazing at standing this year that I knew she would be able to keep up in the top eight.”
“The relay was a good indicator of our potential,” Ransom agreed. “We all fought hard and put together a great performance. I was obviously thrilled to be tagged off right at the front! It’s very motivating to be going head to head with the top teams.”
The United States had immediately gotten a tough start, with leadoff racer Clare Egan skiing a penalty loop in standing; she tagged off to Susan Dunklee in 19th place. Dunklee had collected fifth-place finishes in both the sprint and pursuit this week and skied the fastest of all second-leg skiers in the relay, but was still able to make up only 5.5 seconds on Hammerschmidt and move the team to 14th.
Joanne Reid, the third American, also used two spare rounds, moving the team up another three places to 11th. Finally, Maddie Phaneuf used three spares in standing and the Americans finished 14th (+3:08.3).
“Today’s relay was mediocre for me,” Phaneuf wrote in an email. “I felt okay on the skis but still not great. I was really happy with my prone, I took some wind clicks coming in and was pleased that it worked. Our team was the only team that cleaned all of the prone stages from the clip [without spares]! So that was exciting. I was pretty bummed with my standing, missing three from the clip, but was happy with how I handled the pressure to hit them with my spare rounds. I still can’t remember exactly what happened, I do recall it being a bit gustier when I was shooting. I felt like I was making progress on my standing during training and the Sprint race, but today I just wasn’t focused I guess.”
The women were not particularly satisfied with the result, but knew that they could do better.
“There are a lot of fighting hearts on this team,” Reid said in a USBA press release. “We’re not always the team with the best shooting, but I think every one of us has enough love for our teammates that we choose to fight for them, and for our staff that have put so much work into making our race successful… we are aware of every piece we have to work on, and every one of us is dedicated to the process of learning and training and practicing until we can make it to the top. One team, one goal. See you in 2018, PyeongChang, and we’ll be stronger then.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.