Two years ago, Nathan Smith and Rosanna Crawford were second in the first World Cup biathlon race of the season, a single mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden. It was the first relay medal ever for Canadian biathlon.
This year, same race, same place, Smith sat out because of a sore throat but Crawford and Christian Gow teamed up for Canada to take on the event again. Partway through the race they were in podium position before a serious crash took them more than out of medal contention; the team was lapped and finished 22nd.
“Pretty bummed,” Crawford said.
Through the first leg, she had used two spare rounds but still tagged off in third place, just 7.1 seconds out of the lead. Then Gow shot perfectly to hang onto fourth, 18.4 seconds out of the lead as the Austrian duo of Lisa Theresa Hauser and Simon Eder had taken control of the race and would never be out of the lead, eventually winning by 16.5 seconds.
Crawford chased hard and passed Italy’s Alexia Runggaldier.
“I thought, I’ll just tuck in behind the Italian, but then I thought, oh, she’s going too slow,” Crawford said. “That’s always an amazing feeling when you think, I feel stronger than you, I can pass you.”
After a tough season for much of the Canadian team last year, that feeling was particularly nice, she added.
Crawford was skiing in third just on the tails of Germany’s Vanessa Hinz when she hit ice on one of the last downhills of the loop and “did a few somersaults.” She stayed on the ground for several seconds and Canada’s hopes for another podium were dashed.
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“My head was fine,” Crawford said. “There were quite a few physiotherapists who ran over, so they were asking what’s my name, where am I, what date it was. I got all of that right. But when I went to go and push myself up, my shoulder was really sore.”
After at least a minute or two, Crawford headed back out onto the trail, but in a very different part of the race than she had been before. Then there was the issue of her rifle, which she said didn’t have any serious damage but at the time wasn’t working well.
“Just snow everywhere,” Crawford said. “I think the sights might be twisted a little bit, or something happened because then when I did take a shot I was, like, 10 cm above the standing target. Something was off.”
Even with spare rounds which are allowed in relay races, Crawford was left doing two penalty loops and in the meantime, the leaders lapped through. Canada’s day was over.
While Crawford doesn’t have any serious injuries, her shoulder was banged up.
“It is just bruised,” she explained. “The skin tore a little bit where the rifle must have hit it… I probably should have just stopped. Our physio here [later] said, yeah, you have quite a bit of adrenaline going through, so if something feels like it still hurts, then it means that it’s probably pretty bad.
“But it’s so hard, especially in relays,” Crawford said. “Christian is such an amazing shooter, he’s so fast and so accurate and he had done so well. I really didn’t want to let him down. And then I was also thinking about Nations Cup points. If I didn’t finish then we would get no points, whereas even if we were lapped at least we would get some points. So all of that was going through my head.”
Canada finished 22nd, and did get a few Nations Cup points.
Another lesson: stick with the plan.
“My race plan was to not take that inside corner,” Crawford said of the spot where she crashed. “I changed it halfway through the race bcause other people were taking it… On my second time down the hill, so after my first prone shooting, I was behind Hauser, and she took the inside line and I lost a little bit of a gap on her. So I thought, okay, next time I will take the inside line. So the third time going down the hill I was behind Hinz. She took the inside line and I was right behind her.
“In hindsight I probably should have just stuck with my race plan and taken it a little bit wide, because I have been here many, many years,” she concluded.
Austria Shines as France Falters
Meanwhile, the Austrian duo was extending their lead. France had come in as heavy favorites, with Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin Habert having won the same race last season, Fourcade having won the overall World Cup, and Dorin Habert finishing fourth in the women’s World Cup Total Score last season.
But the duo put together a sloppy shooting race, using 10 spare rounds over 40 targets. The Austrians, on the other hand, were nearly perfect, using just two spare rounds and cleaning their targets quickly.
By the time Eder came in for the final shooting bout, he could have used at least two spare rounds and still left with the lead. Instead, he cleaned.
“First race, first victory – this is a dream,” Eder said in an Austrian Ski Federation press release. “It already paid off to toil for another year. I knew this would be one of the toughest single mixed competitions, because you always carry the exhaustion from the last climb to the shooting range. But I could pace myself well. I think tactically it was a strong performance, and that’s the most important thing in the single mixed. It’s not about always going full throttle, otherwise the shooting series won’t work out anymore. It was just perfect on the range today.”
Their win was not a surprise, as the pair had won the single mixed relay World Cup in Kontiolahti, Finland, last season. But it was still a relief, Hauser said.
“It’s just incredible to immediately be on the top of the podium in the first race,” she said in the same press release. “The first race is always something special, because you are extremely stressed.”
Behind them, an interesting race was unfolding. The German team used nine spare rounds and had only a single perfect shooting stage, and Hinz said that her legs were “not yet quite where I’d like them to be.” But teammate Erik Lesser was aggressive on the trails, having the third-fastest time on each of his relay legs, and he skied across the finish line in second place, well clear of the rest of the field.
And that’s where things got really crazy. A number of teams had left the range the final time quite close together: Kazakhstan with Maxim Braun, then Lesser (who immediately passed him), then Italy and Ukraine. Italy’s Thomas Bormolini charged hard and skied his way into third position.
But on one of the final downhills Bormolini fell, taking out Dmytro Pidruchnyi of Ukraine as well. That allowed Braun, who had been left behind, to sail past them. It also allowed Fourcade and Sebastian Samuelsson of Sweden, who had started the final loop many seconds back, to catch further up.
In the end it was Braun taking third place for Kazakhstan, France fourth, and Sweden fifth.
“I opened my eyes and I saw the athletes from Sweden and Ukraine just lying in the trail,” Braun said through a translator in the post-race press conference. “I would like to have watched the race myself to realize what was going on. I realized it was my chance and I grabbed it… this summer we worked really really hard, and this is a fantastic beginning of the season for us.”
While he acknowledged that he had “a little bit of luck,” it was also good biathlon: with just five spare rounds, Kazakhstan had the second-best shooting of the day.
Americans 19th After Fast Start
The single mixed relay was the first World Cup start of Emily Dreissigacker’s career. The Americans started in bib six and Dreissigacker soon found herself among the race leaders.
“My plan was to get in behind someone and try to pace myself and relax on the first lap, especially up the first hill,” Dreissigacker wrote in an email. “But it turns out I just have this instinct in a mass start to get to the front. At the time it felt easy and it was super fun to lead even if it was just for a hot sec. But of course once the adrenaline wore off I definitely paid for it.”
Dreissigacker got through the first shooting stage with perfect shooting, and headed out again. But the effort early on was indeed catching up with her.
“I think it’s important in a single mixed relay to pace yourself on the first leg, which is something I did not execute well today,” she wrote. “My legs flooded really badly and didn’t start to clear at all until my very last loop.”
She had to use all three spare rounds in standing, and tagged off to Leif Nordgren in 20th. Nordgren, though, used only one spare round total over his next prone and standing stages, and was able to bring the Americans into 12th.
Dreissigacker then took a penalty loop in both of her second-leg shooting stages, and then Americans ended up in 19th place after being lapped.
“Prone felt good but my group moved right and down,” Dreissigacker explained. “I’m not sure why, it could have been the wind, it could have been something slightly off in my position but I was happy to at least hit all of my spares… Overall I’m happy with [the race]. I have a lot to learn still and a lot I can improve upon, but you have to start somewhere.”
That’s a sentiment for Nordgren, too, who is hoping for better things later in the year.
“It’s a long season with the highlights being the Olympics so I didn’t really expect much from today,” Nordgren wrote. “That being said it’s always nice to get a chance to race, it’s a different type of stimulus for the the body then just a hard intervals session. Emily had a rough day on the skis. It’s a pretty brutal single mixed course here, so if you aren’t ready to go hard right from the start you’ll pay for it later. The snow was a little deep today as a result of the grooming so that makes it a little bit tougher on the legs too. It’s not the end of the world not getting to race the second leg – it was nice to get back in race mode even if just for a little bit.”
For Nordgren, just to be racing and feel good was an achievement compared to last year, when it was on this very day that he realized a toe injury sustained just before the start of the race season was actually a big problem. Nordgren ended up taking several weeks off of racing completely to heal.
“Last year it was a dark time for me!” he wrote. “It’s really nice to have not had any trouble like that heading into the season. Overall the preparation has been pretty good this year, so I’m excited to get into the individual races starting next week.”
-Harald Zimmer contributed
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.