It was almost another start-to-finish victory at the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang for the current golden girl of biathlon, Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier. But it came with a painful price to pay.
After starting the women’s 10-kilometer pursuit on Monday evening local time in freezing temperatures and with a 24-second lead following her sprint victory, Dahlmeier began the race intensely focused, again cleaning the first prone stage.
But this time she was not uncontested.
After starting in 13th position and almost a minute back to begin the pursuit, Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina, who’s currently second in the World Cup Total Score standings, caught up to Dahlmeier after both had incurred one penalty in the second prone shooting and avoided more by performing multiple adjustments on their rifle sights to deal with gusts of wind.
After closing a nine-second gap, Kuzmina passed her rival on the next loop. But Dahlmeier did not seem to mind someone else helping her to set the pace in once again difficult conditions on the course and range (the race jury reportedly debated a potential postponement), and tucked behind Kuzmina to wait for her next chance in the standing shooting. There Dahlmeier cleaned again, leaving the range with a 38-second lead after Kuzmina had to twice ski through the penalty lap, but still retained second place as the closest pursuer.
“On the third loop we raced together, and on the uphill part Anastasiya was really strong and I just wanted to follow her and we had a good speed together,” Dahlmeier later recounted at the post-race press conference. “And at the shooting range, I felt really comfortable. I know about my good standing shooting, and I just looked to my targets and wanted to hit the middle and it worked … During the last years I could improve my shooting in wind situations, but I didn’t especially train wind situations [for PyeongChang].”
“Laura is a very hard opponent to beat,” Kuzmina said at the press conference, via a translator. “She is able to fully focus on the shooting and she is able to shoot very good also in the strong wind, so you can fight with her on the skis of course, but you need to shoot very good to beat her.”
In her final shooting stage, Dahlmeier again cleaned all targets and left the range with a 55-second lead on Kuzmina, with France’s Anaïs Bescond right behind the Slovakian.
“If I would already think that I might miss a target when approaching the range for the fourth time, I believe that would be the wrong mindset. I just tried to concentrate on myself, on my own targets,” Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ZDF when questioned about the final shooting, when she probably could have afforded to compensate for one penalty lap. “I have proven often enough that I can hit [when it matters], in training we simulate that every day. And I just firmly believed that it will work out again today. And it did, so I am very grateful for that.”
With such a comfortable lead, nobody could challenge her anymore on the final loop. On the finishing stretch Dahlmeier had enough time to reach for a German flag handed to her from the stands, before crossing the line in a time of 30:35.3 minutes, with one penalty (0+1+0+0).
Fighting for the positions on the podium behind her, Kuzmina crossed the line 29.4 seconds back to claim the silver medal, winning the finishing sprint against Bescond, who had to settle for bronze (+29.6).
Bescond moved up from a 19th starting position largely thanks to her 19-for-20 shooting with just one penalty lap (0+0+1+0), though she also skied the fifth-best overall course time, while Kuzmina overcame four misses (0+1+2+1) with the fastest course time of the day, just as she had done in the sprint.
Almost another minute back, fourth place went to sprint silver medalist Marte Olsbu of Norway (+1:07.3, four penalties), fifth to Hanna Öberg of Sweden (+1:08.9, three penalties), and sixth to Dahlmeier’s teammate Denise Herrmann (+1:19.4, two penalties), who improved from starting in 21st position. Sprint bronze medalist Veronika Vitková of the Czech Republic fell back to seventh (+1:37.3, three penalties).
Going to the stands a few minutes after reaching the finish, Kuzmina hugged her friends and relatives, including her husband and a teary eyed woman (presumably her mother) who was wearing a sports jacket embroidered with Russian emblems. Herself a mother of two, Kuzmina is the older sister of Russian star biathlete Anton Shipulin, who was not invited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to compete as part of the neutral Olympic Athletes from Russia team in PyeongChang. An appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) was denied just hours before the Opening Ceremony. Kuzmina has been racing for Slovakia since 2008, only competing for Russia at two Junior World Championships and never at senior-level championships.
“I am missing my brother. I hoped to the last moment that he will be able to compete here,” Kuzmina said about the topic when asked about it in the press conference, via a translator. “I don’t want to talk a lot about this issue. I am really sorry about what happened and that my brother is not here. I am here to fight for medals for my entire family. I won the one medal, and I want to win another medal for my brother.”
Kuzmina, 33, is an Olympic gold medalist in the sprint and silver medalist in the pursuit at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, and sprint gold medalist from 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
“This is a very special feeling to have the third medal from the third Olympics in a row,” Kuzmina explained. “Almost everybody who talked to me was [expecting] that I could win the sprint here, because I won the sprint in Vancouver and Sochi as well. That didn’t happen, but I am very glad that I managed to defend the silver medal in this event like in Vancouver eight years ago.”
For the 30-year-old Bescond it was her first medal at Olympic Winter Games, after she narrowly missed out four years ago in Sochi with two fifth places in the sprint and individual.
At 2016 World Championships she had taken silver in the 15 k individual in Oslo, Norway, and she’s also earned six medals with French relay teams. But last season was a down year where she started just one race at 2017 World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, and finished outside the top 50 before she rebounded with a third place in the pursuit at the World Cup test event last year in PyeongChang.
“Of course it was never granted that I make the podium,” Bescond said in the press conference, via a translation. “It was very difficult for me not being able to do the World Championships [in Hochfilzen]. This year I really wanted to perform very well, and the Olympic Games is the best thing you could think of, the Holy Grail. So I did think about last year this time, and I was very happy to have a very good race.”
“Laura really dominates our sport, but there a lot of good athletes out there,” Bescond stated when asked how her opponent could be beaten at these Olympics. “They are strong, they got lots of qualities, what you need to do is be faster on the skis and shoot better and faster, that’s it.”
Sounds easy enough.
But if her opponents couldn’t quite yet do it in the pursuit on Monday, the weather conditions and all the increased attention on Dahlmeier, who usually guards her private life closely, pushed her to her limits.
“I am extremely happy that everything worked out so well again today,” Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ZDF right after the race. “I tried to be fully focused on the shootings, on the course I didn’t feel quite as relaxed. On the one hand the conditions were very demanding, and the past two days have taken a toll on me with a lot of media appointments, a lot of additional stuff. At the moment I am feeling quite well, but of course it is cold and when the fingers thaw up, maybe some viewers know it, that hurts quite a bit.”
Soon after, Dahlmeier was no longer in the mood to celebrate, as she had fully exhausted herself for the victory. And her frozen fingers exposed to the cold in thin race gloves now seemingly really hurt, even though in the press conference before she had claimed that “I always spend a lot of time in the mountains and there it’s normal to have wind and cold temperatures, so perhaps I am a little bit used to it.”
“Primarily it was the cold. She is in extreme pain,” Stefan Schwarzbach, a manager and speaker for the German Ski Federation, later told ZDF after she had to cancel a planned studio appearance. “So when [her hands] thawed up she really had tears in her eyes, it was painful to watch. After the doping control she put herself to rest, she is just completely finished.”
At last year’s World Championships in Hochfilzen, where she won five medals, she physically collapsed after two races to the point that the German team doctor did not want her to start the mass start. In the end her stubbornness prevailed, and she also won that race overtaking American Susan Dunklee on the final lap.
“We already know that from last year, we just have to be careful with the sum of the exertions in competition,” Schwarzbach said. “And I believe the spectators will be accepting if she reduces the media work a little bit, and then hopefully can stand at the start line for the individual with full strength. … She will be all right, but we will reduce her program to what is necessary, even if it would have been nice to celebrate the second gold medal.”
North Americans Moving On Up
Canada’s Rosanna Crawford finished 19th in the pursuit as the best North American, moving up from 53rd at the start, based on her sprint result, to finish 19th (+2:27.7) for her best individual result at her third Olympics.
On the range, Crawford managed to cope well with the windy conditions, shooting 18-for-20 with one miss in each of her standing stages (0+0+1+1). In an interview with FasterSkier after, she said she would have liked to avoid one mistake she made in the final shooting.
“[The wind] seems to have been more consistent,” Crawford said. “My zeroing went really well, I had my sights, I knew exactly where they were and what corrections I would need to make. So prone I was really confident. … In my last standing I didn’t mean to pull the trigger on my first shot, so that was a bit of a disappointment.”
She enjoyed her race despite the harsh weather and demanding tracks, skiing the 19th-ranked overall course time.
“For sure I love the 2k [pursuit loop] here,” Crawford said. “I [also] was 19th with 18-for-20 last year at the World Cup here. Yeah, the 2 k is so much fun. You just have to grit your teeth up that hill and then just rip along the top and back down to the range, and I love it so much. My skis were amazing. Our techs did such a good job. So I just had some fun out there today.”
Asked how she got into a better mindset following the sprint, Crawford said she called her older sister, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing.
“I had some really good chats with my sister Chandra,” Crawford said. “She’s a huge motivator for me and my biggest cheerleader now. She really just talked some sense into me to not be so down on myself after the sprint, so that was really helpful.”
Teammate Julia Ransom also improved from her sprint position, moving up by 12 places to finish in 28th place (+3:03.0) with one miss in her last standing stage. She was one of just six women on Monday who shot 19-for-20, with no one shooting clean.
“I had some really solid shooting today hitting my first 15, missing my 18th or 17th shot,” Ransom recounted after the race. “I am a confident shooter in the wind, I know corrections fairly well, and I think you just have to make good shots and that’s all you can hope for”
On the course she skied the 44th-best course time after a faster first loop.
“My legs were not feeling as good as I was hoping they’d be, so I was really happy to keep it together in the range and just slowly work my way up and ski with the other girls,” Ransom concluded.
Emily Dreissigacker, the lone American to qualify for the women’s pursuit, improved by four positions after starting in 51st to finish 47th (+5:01.4) with four penalties (0+1+1+2).
That was another improvement on her personal best at the World Cup-level, which she achieved in Saturday’s sprint. Before these Olympics, Dreissigacker’s best result on the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup had been 56th place in a pursuit in Antholz, Italy, last month.
On the course she recorded the 54th course time, steadily holding her position on the three loops between the shooting stages.
“I think the skiing felt a little better than the sprint two days ago,” Dreissigacker said after. “Getting to ski with people is always really fun, and my skis were amazingly fast.”
Just like Crawford, she also preferred the loop the pursuit was raced on over other courses in PyeongChang.
“I really like the 2 k course,” Dreissigacker said. “You climb up and then you come back down, which is something that I really like. I think mentally especially, I’m like ‘All right, gotta get to the top of this hill and then I have time to recover,’ which is nice.”
“I really just like to try to keep things simple,” she said of her shooting performance and approach to the wind-exposed range. “Just relax, if the wind comes up just wait for it to pass or if it’s not going to pass take some clicks. I really think the simpler you can keep it the better.”
“The wind can be a little tricky,” she told US Biathlon, according to a press release. “In my first standing stage, actually, I had to wait out a pretty big gust of wind. All the people around me were waiting, too, and we’re all just standing there waiting for it to die. That’s kind of just how it is. You have to be able to deal with that … be able to wait and not freak out.”
Canada’s Emma Lunder finished 53rd (+6:16.8) after starting 54th then shooting four penalties (0+1+1+2).
“It was not great,” Lunder reflected. “Started out with shooting OK, unfortunately missed two in my last standing and just did not have it in the legs today, so the skiing was a big struggle.”
While not completely satisfied with her race performance, the 26-year-old Lunder said she was making the most out of her first Olympic experience.
“The whole time I was just trying to remind myself, I am at the Olympics, racing my first Olympics. It’s such a cool atmosphere, so even if the race isn’t going as well as I would like I am still pretty happy to be here,” Lunder explained. “The racing doesn’t feel different from a World Cup. It’s being at the Athlete’s Village with athletes from every sport all over the world, the best in the world, that’s been pretty special. I have [met] quite a few people who I never thought I would meet, so I have just been trying to take it all in and also try to perform as well as I can.”
Asked how she is dealing with the cold conditions and prepares for her upcoming races, Lunder added, “I would say a lot of it is energy management. When it’s this cold out I find I am a lot more tired, burning more calories just from shivering. So we have a therapist here with us. I will see her for some treatment, just take a bit of time to lay in bed and watch some movies, do whatever I can to rest up a little bit.”
The fourth Canadian, Megan Tandy, did not start,as she’s working to kick a cold in time for the next race on Wednesday.
“Disappointing news, but it is for the best,” Tandy wrote in an Instagram post before the race. “I have decided not to start the 10km Pursuit tonight in order to get healthy for our upcoming Individual Race. I will be cheering on my girls from bed, I know they can rock this stadium tonight.”
Estonia’s Johanna Talihärm, who skis collegiately for Montana State University and last year split her training time between Bozeman, Montana, and Estonia, finished 26th (+2:59.4) with another strong performance after a career-best 22nd place in the sprint. She incurred four penalties (0+1+2+1), and skied the 27th-ranked course time.
The biathlon competitions in PyeongChang continue on Wednesday with the women’s 15-kilometer individual and Thursday with the men’s 20-kilometer individual race.
— Jason Albert and Ian Tovell contributed
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.