Twenty months ago, Germany’s Denise Herrmann was a cross-country skier, ending the Ski Tour Canada in 28th place in the 10-kilometer classic pursuit in Canmore, Alberta. And one with a very successful career, earning an Olympic bronze medal in the relay in Sochi in 2014 and narrowly missing out on another one with a fourth place in the team sprint.
But her heart seemingly was no longer in the sport. A month after the 2015/2016 season had wrapped up, Herrmann publicly announced her intention to continue her athletic career with the goal of qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, yet no longer in cross-country skiing. Instead she dreamed about a second career in biathlon.
Biathlon is highly popular as a spectator sport in Herrmann’s home country, arguably receiving more attention than cross-country skiing and thus providing a higher earning potential. But while a switch between the two disciplines has not been unprecedented, Germany’s senior national team is also one of the most successful and competitive ones, with no guarantee even for seasoned biathletes to make the World Cup roster. So critics wondered if that was a wise decision by Herrmann, or rather a case of giving up a bird in the hand for two in the bush.
Herrmann had some initial success right out of the gate in her first season as a biathlete. She instantly qualified for the German team for the second-tier IBU Cup, and with the coaches trying to make use of her athletic talent she was allowed to start three World Cup races, and finished 18th in her first sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
Then ten months ago in January 2017, she might have had some second thoughts and tried a “mini-comeback” at a cross-country World Cup in Toblach, Italy, in what appeared to be an attempt to qualify for the 2017 Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland. Despite placing 13th in a freestyle sprint and fourth in a team sprint, but she was not nominated to Germany’s World Championships team. Instead she received more starts at the IBU World Cup test event in PyeongChang, where she won her first relay race.
After another successful offseason of biathlon training, highlighted by winning national titles in three disciplines, she was put on the IBU Cup team again. That followed a sprint victory in Sjusjøen, Norway, after which she was ‘called up’ to the roster for this week of races in Östersund, Sweden.
Breakthrough in Östersund
This weekend, Herrmann achieved at least a big milestone on the road to her dream goal and secured her ticket for the German Olympics team for PyeongChang, fulfilling the team-internal qualification criteria (a top-eight result) with an exclamation mark by winning the sprint on Saturday.
Now a day later she followed that up with another victory in the women’s 10 k pursuit in a time of 30:02.7 minutes with two penalties (0+0+2+0). Her transition to biathlon has come to fruition.
While the sprint only required two shooting stages, for the pursuit she had to navigate four, an obstacle that typically weeds out inexperienced shooters, especially in the standing stages. But on Sunday, Herrmann demonstrated everything she has already learned about her new sport.
Starting with a 15-second lead on France’s Justine Braisaz based on the sprint, Herrmann skied with a controlled pace on the first loop and went on to clean her first prone stage, returning to the course with an increased lead of 22 seconds. Then Herrmann reacted correctly to some changing wind influence by adjusting her sights to also clean the second prone stage and kept her distance to Braisaz and the next chase group.
Herrmann later told German TV broadcaster ZDF she would not have expected to win “in a pursuit having to shoot four times and with a number of extremely good shooters breathing down my neck.”
“To twice clean in prone made me extremely happy since that is the basis for a good pursuit,” she added. “It was good that I had a little lead so I was not under immediate pressure. With the wind on the shooting range you really had to focus today.”
Then in the first standing stage she began with a good rhythm but narrowly missed her last two shots, hitting above the edge of the black target. Momentarily she fell back to the second place, with France’s Braisaz taking an 11-second lead after she managed to clean all of her targets.
But Herrmann had already completed one penalty lap before any chasers had left the range, and after completing the second penalty she was able to regain her lost time on the course. For the final shooting, the two women stood side by side on the range, and both managed to clean their five targets.
“In the third one I was shaky,” Herrmann told ZDF. “Then in the last one I tried to really give it everything I had and leave with a clean shooting. Easier said than done […] Though we practiced pressure situations like this in training with the coaches teasing us, and that helped me a bit in the last bout.”
“When I came on the shooting range in the first position, it was the first time that happened to me, and I just had a thought, ‘Wow is it true, is that possible?’ ” Braisaz said at the IBU press conference. “It was a high difficulty today, it was tough, but I did it.”
Braisaz started the final loop just 1.5 seconds ahead of Herrmann, who quickly passed Braisaz on a climb, then increased that lead into the finish. Braisaz crossed the line 25.8 seconds behind Herrmann, repeating her second place from the sprint and tying her career-best World Cup result for the fourth time. She was one of only three athletes to shoot clean on Sunday.
“I was afraid,” Braisaz said in the press conference when questioned about Herrmann chasing behind her. “She just passed me on the uphill, I just tried to do my best even if it won’t work. … I am very happy, it was my main goal today to stay focused on what you have to do [on the shooting range], and I did it.”
With a comfortable lead, Herrmann had enough time to waive to the about 3,000 spectators in the stands. “I already told [my roommate] it’s cool to win, but it must be even cooler to ski across the finish line in first and knowing you have won,” Herrmann told ZDF. “An incredible feeling. … With my tired legs I was happy that there was no battle until the finish line. Then you can really enjoy it, and I have never experienced that feeling [in cross-country], and it’s wonderful.”
Norway’s Olsbu finished third, 48.0 seconds behind Herrmann with two penalties (0+1+0+1).
“This means a lot to me, I felt that this week has been good for me, but it has just been almost [on the podium] so I am glad that today I got the podium,” Olsbu explained in the press conference. “I was OK on the track and my shooting was good, even though I am not so happy about my last shooting.”
“She is really good, I am very impressed about what she is doing in the shooting,“ Olsbu said of Herrmann. “We trained in that for so many years, and she has trained for two years or something, so that is really impressing.”
Olsbu’s teammate Synnøve Solemdal started the race with the yellow bib of the World Cup Total Score leader, earned via a second place in the individual and a fourth place in the sprint. It was the first time in her career the 28-year-old Solemdal had achieved that distinction, and after she finished 19th on Sunday (+2:23.5 with four penalties), Braisaz took over the lead in the World Cup standings after the first week of races.
Twenty seconds behind Olsbu, Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi finished fourth (+1:09.1 with one penalty). Herrmann’s teammates Maren Hammerschmidt in fifth (+1:16.8 with two penalties), moving up from starting 14th, and Vanessa Hinz in eighth (+1:29.1 with one penalty), up from 16th, also pre-qualified for the German Olympic team.
“I got the [qualification norm] today, and that was very important for me,” Hammerschmidt told the IBU in an interview. “I never would have thought that I could already do it here in Östersund, I thought maybe in December was good, so I am very happy to go to Hochfilzen without this [pressure next week]. When I came to the finish line I realized Denise had won again, and I am so happy for her, it is incredible what she has done.”
Team Germany is starting to take shape for the Olympics, with Herrmann a name on the roster few fans would have expected a year ago.
“I think Laura is coming back next weekend…,” a laughing Herrmann cautioned at the press conference.
Laura Dahlmeier, the dominant athlete of the 2017 World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, has not started a race this season yet, missing the Östersund World Cup because of illness. She plans to be back for the races later this week (Dec. 8-10) at the site of her biggest successes.
Third-Best Career Result in a Pursuit for Ransom
Starting in 29th and 1:17 out of first based on her sprint result, Biathlon Canada’s Julia Ransom started her pursuit without a slip, cleaning both her prone shooting stages. Since a number of athletes in front of her incurred penalties, she had moved up all the way to the 11th position as she returned to the course after her second shooting.
“We get pretty consistent feedback on the course so I was aware I was 11th,” Ransom wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “The wind picked up today and made for some tricky shooting. On one end of the range, the wind can swirl off the building and push the bullets one way, while it blows the bullets another way on the opposite side of the range.”
On the next round she skied in a pack with athletes, including Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko (who also cleaned the first prone on Sunday).
“My legs were a little fatigued but those fast girls definitely helped pull me around the course!” Ransom remembered regarding that loop.
In her first standing bout, she again cleaned the first four targets before seeming to hesitate a bit and then missed the last target, having to ski a penalty loop. She came back on the course in 17th position.
Then in the final stage she missed another target, leaving the range for the last time in 21st.
At the finish Ransom was 23rd for her third-best result in a pursuit behind a tied 19th place in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, last season as well as in Antholz, Italy, two seasons ago. She achieved her best career result in a ninth place in the 15 k individual earlier this week.
“I really wished I could have kept my focus for those last standing shots because it would have made for a very exciting race,” Ransom concluded. “That is how it goes sometimes. I am thrilled with my race! You can always say ‘what if…?’ but I am stoked with how solid the start of the season has been. I am looking forward to next weekend, especially since my parents are coming out to watch.”
Starting in 46th position and 1:42 minutes back according to her sprint result, her teammate Rosanna Crawford initially put herself in the mix, cleaning her first prone stage to move up to 38th, even making up a few seconds to Herrmann up front.
But in her next prone shooting, Crawford incurred three penalties, falling back to 53rd and doubling her deficit. With three more penalties in the standing stages Crawford ultimately finished 52nd, 5:25.1 back with six penalties (0+3+1+2).
Her World Cup start in Östersund was marred by a nasty crash in the single mixed relay last Sunday. On Wednesday, she placed 39th in the individual for her best result of the week.
Megan Bankes as Biathlon Canada’s third woman snuck into the top 60 to qualify for her first World Cup pursuit as the 60th and final starter (actually, 59th, since French athlete Anaïs Chevalier withdrew on race day).
But that meant the 2017 Junior World champion in the individual discipline had to begin the race 2:11 minutes after Herrmann started hers.
“I was quite excited because pursuits are always fun races, and to be racing with the 60 best women in the world is pretty neat,” Bankes wrote in an email. “Conditions on the course were pretty fast, the uphills were a little chopped up, but not bad. There was more wind today than any other race day, and I found it hard to read on the range, especially in the far lanes (28, 29, 30), because it swirls due to the wall [of a utility building at the end of the range].”
After missing three targets already in her first prone shooting bout, she lost more time coming back on the track and was 3:50 behind she started her second loop.
“I did not read the wind properly or make a big enough correction when I came into my first prone, so that is why I missed 3,” Bankes explained.
After incurring another penalty in the second prone shooting and one more in the following standing stage, Banks was almost 5:30 minutes back, and the top of the field approached quickly from behind on the short 2.5-kilometer lap.
On her final lap Herrmann passed Bankes, ending the race for the Canadian.
“I think the techs may have yelled at me that I might be lapped, but I don’t really remember,” Bankes wrote in her email. “I knew about the rule, and knew the top girls were real fast, so I was aware of the possibility that I could be lapped. I could also see them coming into the range as I was leaving the range [after the third shooting], so I knew I had to ski pretty fast if I wanted to get to the range again before they finished. That did not happen, but I got farther on my 4th lap than I thought I would. Overall, it was a good learning experience, and a reminder that you should hit your prone targets in a pursuit!”
In Saturday’s sprint, US Biathlon’s Clare Egan, Susan Dunklee and Emily Dreissigacker, along with Canada’s Emma Lunder, missed qualifying in the top 60 for the pursuit.
The IBU World Cup continues next Friday Dec. 8 in Hochfilzen, Austria, with another sprint for the women and men.
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.