The opening event of the 2023 World Championships delivered in spectacular fashion. Twenty-six nations lined up for the Mixed Relay on Wednesday afternoon under bright sunshine and calm, clear skies, with temperatures around zero degrees Celsius. The perfect conditions were a dream come true for organizers, spectators, and teams alike, especially since Oberhof has a reputation for dense fog, heavy wind and snow, and that displeasing other form of precipitation which we won’t even name. Ultimately, those perfect conditions were the ideal backdrop for an exciting and dramatic race. On the podium at the end: Norway first, Italy second, France third. But the outcome proved anything but straightforward, and much would transpire between the starting line and the finish line.
The Mixed Relay combines the performances of two women and two men who each ski a six kilometer biathlon race—three times around a two kilometer loop—shooting once prone and once standing. As in all biathlon relays, each athlete has the chance to use up to three spare rounds per stage, if needed, to hit the five targets. On those unfortunate occasions when there are still targets left un-hit after using eight rounds, the penalty loop awaits.
Oberhof’s course is one of the hardest in the world, and the two kilometer loop jams together all the nastiest sections. The Birxsteig hill out of the stadium is two minutes of fan-fueled V1/offset technique climbing. Though Eurovision’s announcers remarked that the women in the first leg were going at “a mollusk’s pace,” it’s more likely that they were moving quite well given the steep incline. After a painfully long false flat at the top, athletes crest onto a high-speed, technical descent with a sweeping righthand turn. Hannah Oeberg of Sweden clocked 73 kph there on race day. Next is a sequence of four uphills at varying grades. There is one flattish downhill section mixed in, which tempts athletes to tuck but is really a working section. After the final steep pitch, a short downhill spits out onto the long, flat straightaway approach to the range and finish, where there is often a stiff headwind. Drafting is crucial there.
Canada off to an excellent start; setback for Norway
Norway was heavily favored to win Wednesday’s mixed relay, but right away in the first leg they had a major setback when Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold incurred a penalty loop in standing and left the range in 16th place, 56 seconds back. Lisa Vittozzi of Italy, Julia Simon of France, Emma Lunder of Canada, and Paulina Batovska Fialkova of Slovakia all capitalized on the moment, with Simon clearing her targets in 16.9 seconds to take the lead. At the exchange, Simon led Vittozzi by nine seconds with Fialkova and Lunder following five seconds later. Team Canada couldn’t have asked for a better start from Lunder, who hit 10/10 and skied one of her fastest course times of the season to tag her teammate, Nadia Moser, just 26 seconds out of the lead. Deedra Irwin from the USA also hit the perfect score and skied well especially given a recent bout of illness, tagging Joanne Reid in ninth, right in the mix with nine teams who all tagged between :55 and 1:05 seconds back.
In the second leg, Dorothea Wierer of Italy overtook Anais Chevalier of France, but only by a few meters as both women skied and shot nearly flawlessly. Meanwhile, last year’s World Cup overall winner Marte Olsbu Roiseland tried to claw back time for team Norway but only managed to put five seconds on Wierer. To the delight of the crowd, Denise Herrmann of Germany brought the home team back from a slow first leg, skiing the top course time of the second leg by an impressive 18 seconds to move her team from 11th to third. From Canada, Nadia Moser skied an outstanding first loop, holding onto one of the circuit’s fastest skiers, Sweden’s Eliva Oeberg, but then got left behind on the shooting range when she needed all three spares in prone. Moser escaped without a penalty and eventually tagged in ninth, but Joanne Reid ran into trouble in standing and incurred a penalty loop, tagging in 15th, 2:16 back. At the half way point, Italy, France, Germany, and Sweden were all within 30 seconds of each other at the front of the race, with Norway lagging in fifth still 50 seconds behind.
Turnaround at the Half-Way Point
Leg three was a major turning point in the race. Sturla Holm Laegreid fulfilled his teammates’ wildest wishes, executing the perfect race and recovering a 50-second deficit for team Norway to take the lead from France’s Emilien Jaqueline. Didier Bionaz, the first of two 22-year-old men on Italy’s relay team, hung with the more-experienced World Championship medalists from Norway and France to keep his team solidly in the hunt for a medal, tagging off just eight seconds back. Sweden continued lurking dangerously close in 4th, with Martin Ponsiluoma closing the gap to a mere 14 seconds. While Norwegian fans rejoiced, German fans fell off an emotional cliff when Benedict Doll had a penalty loop in prone and sabotaged the comeback Herrmann had just so brilliantly made. Both Canada and US had strong third legs: Adam Runnalls maintained the top-10 position for Canada and Paul Schommer moved from 15th to 13th, losing only 11 seconds to the leaders.
When Laegreid tagged Johannes Thignes Boe in first place at the final exchange, it seemed like something crazy would need to happen to prevent Norway from cruising to victory. But then at Shooting 7, the prone stage of the last leg, something crazy did happen. People started missing… and missing, and missing. First Boe, then last year’s World Cup overall winner, Quentin Fillion Maillet of France, then Sweden’s Sebastian Samuelsson, all missed three from the magazine, alarming their teammates who looked on anxiously from the sidelines. The wind flags were not up, so the most probable cause is that the setting sun changed the optics of how athletes saw the target through their sites relative to when they zeroed. In that situation—with no idea where the misses are going or how to make a sight correction—athletes have only one option which is to take a good shot and hope for the best.
Boe and Fillon Maillet narrowly escaped with no penalty loops, but lost a lot of time shooting each spare round with care. Samuelsson ended up with a hugely disheartening three penalty loops! He later posted on his Instagram account that he found his bedding screws, which hold the rifle in place, to be loose. While the race leaders messed around with spares, 22-year-old Tommaso Giacomel of Italy and 39-year old Simon Eder of Austria managed to clean with no spares, putting Italy in the lead and Austria in fourth!
On the last shooting, all eyes were on the young Giacomel, who found himself shooting on lane one, as superstar Boe let him lead into the range. Shooting on lane one is difficult: big cameras in your face make it nearly impossible to ignore the fact that you’re being watched. You can almost hear the commentators talking about you through the lenses. On any given shooting stage that’s a formidable distraction but when it’s the culmination of a four-person race which has lasted over an hour, and it has all come down to the eighth and final shooting stage to decide who has a chance at a World Championships gold medal, staying focussed downrange is nearly impossible. Giacomel took everyone’s breath away with his composure, hitting four out of five and then the first spare in a total of just 23 seconds.
Fillion Mailley Keeps it Exciting
Boe matched Giacomel’s performance on the range, and as they left the range together it was clear the race was already won. The Norwegians managed a remarkable comeback, from nearly a minute back at the half-way point, to take the first medal of the Championships. Giacomel brought home a silver that felt like gold for Italy. Fillon Maillet was safely in third as he waved to fans on his way to the finish, but as if to keep things exciting, he suddenly realized he had missed the finish lanes and was instead skiing through the lap! He turned around and corrected his mistake just in time to hold off ninth-seeded Austria, who had the best shooting performance of the day using just three spares total. Christian Gow (CAN) used just a single spare in prone and held off Sweden to give Canada a solid eighth place finish. For the US, Sean Doherty put together a great performance with a sixth-ranked leg to keep the US in 13th.
Biathlon World Championships Mixed Relay RESULTS
Next up: Women’s Sprint
The women’s Sprint is Friday at 8:30AM Eastern Time. Check for the start list at www.biathlonresults.com.