Seeing Sean Doherty on the podium on Thursday at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Junior World Championships was hardly a surprise — but that didn’t necessarily make it any easier to reach.
The 20-year-old US Biathlon A-team member had started early in bib 10 and initially finished second in the junior men’s 15-kilometer individual start, after two misses put him two minutes behind race leader Felix Leitner, of Austria, who had one penalty.
Two minutes back and still on the podium? Yep, it was that kind of day. Doherty’s time held up against everyone but one other man: Italy’s Andrea Baretto, who cleaned the four-stage race and still finished 1:50.8 off Leitner’s time to claim second place. Doherty moved into third, and while he had a couple challengers for the final step on the podium — including Russia’s Dmitrii Shamaev in bib 82 — no one came close. Shamaev ended up fifth, almost a minute and 45 seconds behind Doherty and 3:45.0 behind Leitner, the winner in 41:55.4.
Between Doherty and Shamaev, Dominic Reiter of Germany placed fourth, 46.1 seconds behind Doherty and 2:47.2 back for the winner.
For Doherty, it was his eighth podium in six Youth/Junior World Championships (three of those podiums were wins: two in 2014 and one in 2013).
But a medal is a medal, and that’s what he traveled to Cheile Gradistei, Romania, for.
“I am happy to start the racing with such a strong result,” Doherty said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “Today I felt strong on the skis and very in control on the shooting range. I’m looking forward to the sprint and to more racing to come.”
At 2014 junior worlds in Presque Isle, Maine, he won both the sprint and pursuit. His 2013 title came in the pursuit in Obertilliach, Austria.
Doherty was second in the individual as a youth competitor in both 2013 and 2014, where he raced a shorter distance, just 12.5 k.
But as a senior competing on the World Cup, he has shown that the format can work over longer distances too: seniors race 20 k, and Doherty finished 17th, his best World Cup to date, in the opening individual race of this season in Östersund, Sweden.
“I am very impressed by his performance today,” US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It’s easy to expect medals just going off last year’s results or some recent WC [World Cup] results, but to actually full fill these expectations is hard.”
Four days ago, Doherty anchored the U.S. men’s relay to sixth (tying a season best) at the World Cup in Antholz, Italy.
“He had a very intense relay in Antholz on Sunday with a great 6th place finish, then a hard travel day Monday and then had to deal with all the expectations for an expected medal performance,” Eisenbichler wrote. “In my opinion he did a super job today on the range and very solid on skis and in the end it was a medal performance and the whole staff is very proud of him!”
Doherty’s two misses came in the last two stages. His course time ranked third overall; Leitner’s was first.
“I already felt good during target practice, so I went into the race with confidence and pushed the tempo right from the start,” Leitner said in a Austrian Ski Federation press release, according to a translation. “Then on the fourth loop I went a little slower, in order to still have enough strength left for the final loop. That worked out perfectly.”
For Leitner, 19, the win was his first junior title and second at youth/junior worlds after winning the youth pursuit last season in Minsk, Belarus.
“Of course the gold medal is a dream,” he said.
Last year in Minsk, Doherty reached the sprint podium in third, but placed outside the top 10 in the pursuit (11th) and individual (14th).
Two Americans in the Top Five
Back in the top five at youth/junior worlds — this time as a junior — Maddie Phaneuf (US Biathlon X-Team) notched fifth in the junior women’s 12.5 k individual on Thursday for her best result after placing fourth two seasons ago in the sprint in Presque Isle.
Despite two penalties (both in the last two stages, like Doherty), which added 2 minutes to her time, Phaneuf skied fast enough to end up 53.1 seconds behind another Austrian, Susanna Kurzthaler, who won in 39:52.7. Interestingly, Leitner and Kurzthaler both hail from the same town, Mils, with a population of about 4,000 in the Tyrollean region of Austria. They also race for the same club, Nordic Team Absam.
Phaneuf, in her third and final youth/junior worlds, also reached the flower ceremony on Day 1.
“Coming into these championships my goal was to place in the top 10, which I thought was quite a reach considering my best results last year was 22nd,” Phaneuf, 20, wrote in an email. “I am excited to see that my ski speed is right up there, and that I placed in the top 5!”
The 21st starter, she initially finished second to Austria’s Julia Schwaiger, a 2015 World Championships competitor who would later move down a few spots to third (+21.4).
“I was actually told during the last loop that I was sitting in 2nd just 50 seconds behind the leader who had shot clean,” Phaneuf recalled. “This made me realize that I must be skiing pretty well considering I had 2 misses which is a 2 minute penalty. When I saw that I crossed the line in 2nd I was pretty happy and exhausted. My starting bib was pretty early, so I knew that there would be some girls that would knock me down on the results since I missed 2 shots…so I was just hoping to stay in the top 6 and kept asking my teammates to give me the live updates.
“I’m really happy with how I ended up, although it can be frustrating to realize that if I had hit one more target then I could have won the race,” she continued. “But I’m not complaining..a 5th place finish for the opening race is very exciting. It was great to be back in the flower ceremony after a year without it. It brought back some memories from my first Youth/Junior Worlds.”
Of the top four women, all but one (Ukraine’s Anastasiya Merkushyna in second place) cleaned all of their targets. Merkushyna, who has World Cup experience, missed one (0+1+0+0) and finished 8.6 seconds behind Kurzthaler.
For the 20-year-old Austrian, it was her first victory and also her first top 10 in three youth/junior worlds.
“I already noticed during the second shooting that today could become a good day,” Kurzthaler told the Austrian Ski Federation, according to a translation. “I was shaking a little bit during the last standing stage. Then the last loop was extremely tough. This was the first time in my career I shot four times zero in an individual competition. That is just incredible. The joy is huge.”
According to Eisenbichler, Phaneuf’s top-five came after she committed to biathlon full time last year. So far this season, she has recorded three individual top-21 finishes on the IBU Cup, including 14th in the sprint at the last stop in Arber, Germany.
“We knew that she can shoot very well, but what she shows in the skiing part right now (also at the last IBU Cup) is just reflecting the work she and her coach Jean Paquet put in over the last months,” Eisenbichler wrote. “TOP 5 finish with 2 misses is a great result !!”
Following two Americans in the top five, another U.S. biathlete achieved a top 20: Paul Everett (National Development Group) placed 19th (+6:27.6) in the men’s race with 19-for-20 shooting (0+0+1+0).
For the 19-year-old Everett, the result stood as his first top 30 in his second world championships.
“Paul managed to stay calm on the range today and got rewarded today with a Top 20 finish,” Eisenbichler commented. “I am very pleased and satisfied with this performance and think there could be more to come…
“Two Top 5 finishes at Junior WCHs is a great achievement from the athletes and the staff,” he added. “We have a real professional setup here with 3 experienced European ski techs and a great coaching staff and the results reflect that this approach is the right [one] … We try to be successful here, but even more important for me is the educational part for the athletes. If both gets fulfilled it’s a prefect day and it was today!”
Tam von Burg Leads Canada in 30th
The top Canadian on Thursday, Leilani Tam von Burg placed 30th — a career best at worlds — with three clean stages followed by two misses in the last bout (0+0+0+2). She finished 4:33.3 behind Kurzthaler.
Also for Canada, Kendall Chong finished 51st with three misses (2+0+0+1), Charlotte Hamel was 56th with two penalties (0+2+0+0) and Caitlin Campbell 64th with eight misses (1+2+2+3).
Canadian coach Richard Boruta, who is leading the team in Romania, explained the conditions on Thursday had been a frozen track in the morning, which softened up considerably in the afternoon.
“That did have an impact on the ski speed in different starting groups,” Boruta wrote in an email. “As for the Junior women, Leilani has been in the top 10 for most of the race, until he didn’t manage the last shooting as well. For Kendall and Charlotte this would have been an excellent performance, I think they were close to their current maximal potential.”
Among the Canadian junior men, Matthew Strum placed 41st with three penalties (2+1+0+0), Alex Dupuis was 50th with three misses as well (1+0+1+1), Pearce Hanna was 62nd with eight misses (3+2+2+1), and Aidan Millar 66th with six penalties (1+1+3+1).
“Matt and Alex have managed relatively good shooting, but none of the men (maybe except for Pearce) was skiing close to their potential,” Boruta wrote. “Overall, it seems that jet-lag is still an issue, but chances are, that they will feel better with every new race. I think there is certainly top 10 potential, but in biathlon is very hard to make some exact predictions.”
For the U.S., Siena Ellingson placed 43rd in the women’s race with three penalties (0+2+0+1). Brian Halligan was 51st in the men’s race with four misses (2+0+1+1) and Travis Cooper 94th with nine penalties (0+3+4+2).