For a while it looked as if the podium in the women’s 15-kilometer individual at the Thursday’s IBU World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, had been all but decided with only a few more athletes circling the course. But then the favorites who had already finished had someone to worry about.
Along with some 13,000 spectators in the stands, they paid close attention to the video walls in the arena, as one late-starting Canadian — Rosanna Crawford — had just set the best split time after the third shooting by hitting every target for the third time in a row. She was even 1.8 seconds ahead of race leader Dorothea Wierer of Italy.
“I actually didn’t know I was fighting for a podium until the fourth loop,” Crawford told FasterSkier on the phone after the race. That’s where Czech wax technician, Tom Zidek, a former Biathlon Canada wax tech, told her she was is in first place.
“I was like, Oh God!” she recalled with a laugh. “But I think that kind of helped as well because then I knew to expect the crowd for the last standing.”
Could this be Crawford’s big day? Coming into the range for the final standing shooting, the 29-yaer-old Canmore native knew she likely would get a season-best result if she did not totally implode, but needed to shoot clean again to stay in podium contention and not get hit with the individual race’s merciless one-minute penalty per miss.
“I made sure just to set up properly, and then I took an extra breath before my last shot and was pretty pumped to see it turn to white,” Crawford recalled of her last shooting stage. “I am a person who really likes cue words and I have a few sentences that I repeat over in my head. … I knew the only way I was going to hit the targets is if I only thought about the present moment.”
After she had cleaned all five targets for the fourth time, bringing her shooting percentage to a perfect 20-for-20 (the first time she had ever done so in a race), Crawford skated off the shooting mat with a smile on her face. She left the range now 7.8 seconds behind Wierer’s time (after the Italian had also hit all 20 targets), but was still more than 20 seconds ahead of Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen (who had incurred one penalty in her first prone shooting but shot clean after that) and Ukraine’s also clean-shooting Yuliia Dhzima.
“Being one of the last competitors with bib 96 I had a lot of time to wait,” Crawford said at the IBU’s post-race press conference. “I knew all the eyes were on me probably for my last two shootings. That is something I have never experienced before, going from the third loop onwards where everyone was cheering for me around the loop. … It’s a feeling I have never had before to hit all 20, so I was really excited to ski out of the range.”
With her team staff, including head coach Matthias Ahrens running next to the track cheering her on, Crawford chased around the loop up the steep “Wall of Ruhpolding” climb. Overall she skied the 26th-fastest course time of the day, and on the final loop in softening conditions, her loop time ranked 48th. But she still hung onto the podium.
“The course had broken down a little bit, with a hundred-and-something starters, so by the time I went around I was really searching for the best line, which I think paid off as well,” Crawford said.
Coming out of the downhill and onto the finishing stretch with the thousands of spectators cheering her on, Crawford fought the clock. She was out of reach of Wierer, but still within striking distance of Mäkäräinen in second. At the finish, Crawford was third, 21.2 seconds behind Wierer and 8.5 seconds behind Mäkäräinen in second place (+12.7). The Canadian was comfortably ahead of Dhzima in fourth (+45.9), while another clean-shooting Ukrainian, Valj Semerenko, placed fifth (+52.6).
“I am so excited today, it was really special, my first time hitting 20-for-20 as well,” Crawford said at the press conference. “I really love Ruhpolding! It was my first World Juniors, my first World Cup, and my first podium, so it’s a very special place for me.”
As Crawford skied into the finish she looked up to the nearest video monitor to check if she indeed had managed to hold her position on the podium for the first time. But she didn’t have to wait long for confirmation as her teammates and coaches already rushed out into the finish to hug and congratulate her.
“Julia [Ransom], Emma [Lunder] and Sarah [Beaudry], they kind of pushed past the IBU guys, which I don’t think they were allowed to do, but Canada’s not on the podium every day so they let them sneak by to give me a hug so that was really special,” Crawford told FasterSkier. “I’ve been with these girls the past couple years now and so to be able to celebrate with them is amazing. Their results have been so inspiring for me … [My coach Roddy Ward] also jumped the fence, which I don’t think was allowed, so that was nice to be able to see him as well.
“It’s just such a team effort to get to the podium,” she continued. “I’m the one out there skiing and shooting, but I couldn’t have done it without the amazing skis on my feet or my coaches behind the scope, so Matthias and Roddy were really important there, and I couldn’t have done it without the girls who I train with all summer. I’m just so grateful for this team that I’m on.”
“So proud!!!” her longtime boyfriend and teammate Brendan Green wrote on Instagram with a screenshot of Crawford finishing.
“Brendan is amazing,” Crawford said. “I’m sure he was pretty nervous. He was the first text messages and tweets and Instagrams that I had on my phone. Right now I’m having dinner with him and then we’ll go to the awards ceremony tonight. It’s really special.”
“It’s incredible for me, not something that I was really expecting this season,” she told German broadcaster ZDF in an interview immediately after the race. “I didn’t have the best summer of training so to be on the podium is really special for me.”
That was an understatement. Last spring, Crawford and her family dealt with a severe personal tragedy with the loss of her brother Jordan.
“It was such a hard summer for me, losing my brother in April,” she told FasterSkier. “I really wish he was here today so I could celebrate with him, too. I miss him a lot. Jordan was a huge cheerleader for me. He always believed in me. Whenever I was home, he was always cooking me food and helping me take care of the dogs, and he was always so concerned that he was causing me stress. … Jordan loved the outdoors so whenever I was out in a valley or skiing or mountain biking, he was always in my thoughts, and wishing I could share these things with him. It was really hard on the whole family, but it brought us closer together as well in some ways, to support each other.”
Asked if she had caught up with her family members yet, including her sister Chandra Crawford, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing, she said she had spoken to all of them.
“Training was always a little bit on the back burner for the first couple months while we were all grieving and then once finally the motivation came around again to start training, it felt right and proper,” she said of her offseason and transition to another race season. “But then again, the results just were not paying off through the first trimester [of the World Cup] and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong and I was really starting to lose hope.”
Crawford’s previous best non-relay result this season was 39th in the 10 k pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria. And her last time in the top 10 outside a relay race was back in December 2014, where she placed fourth in a sprint and seventh in a pursuit in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
Coincidentally, Germany’s ZDF network featured the Canadian women’s team in a preview to the individual race, filming them and coach Ahrens while they attended a one-hour cooking class in Ruhpolding. But they certainly had not intended it as a segment on a likely podium finisher for the very next race.
“Yes, of course the Bavarian food fueled me around the course,” Crawford said with a laugh when ZDF asked about that.
“Just thank you so much to the fans. There is no way I would have been able to ski around that last loop without them,” she added.
“This really describes the biathlon family,” Crawford later explained in the press conference. “That it doesn’t matter which country you are from, people will be cheering for you. And not only the fans but also the techs. Jarko, Kaisa’s head wax tech, who used to wax for Canada, he was giving me splits off of Kaisa telling me, ‘You are ahead of Kaisa, go get her!’ So they might have to have a serious conversation tonight! It was really incredible.”
In her interview with FasterSkier, Crawford also spoke of a Ukrainian coach who cheered her on for the final loop. “I think this really describes what the biathlon family actually is,” she said. “It’s not the IBU. It’s the coaches and the athletes and the wax techs and the fans, that is actually the biathlon family.”
Despite all the support she had felt throughout the year, Crawford had a season she was not satisfied with so far, with two 39th places as her best results (excluding relays). Going into this race, she ranked 79th in the overall World Cup standings. Last weekend, instead of starting at the World Cup in Oberhof, Germany, she raced two sprints on the IBU Cup in Brezno-Osrblie, Slovakia, where she placed 15th and 22nd. More so than a demotion, that was a move Biathlon Canada made to give other women on the team a chance to qualify for the upcoming Olympics.
“This season has definitively not started out very good for me, and then getting sent to the IBU Cup was really frustrating,” Crawford said on the phone. “But I did really like the course in Osrblie, and it was the best skiing I’d felt all year so I really tried to carry that momentum into today’s race. … I think staying in Europe over Christmas was incredibly beneficial for us.”
Crawford’s previous career bests in non-relay races have come in sprints, with her fourth place in Pokljuka and a fifth place in Hochfilzen, both during the 2014/2015 season. She’s been on the podium before, placing second with teammate Nathan Smith in the single mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden, to open the 2015/2016 season.
“There’s just so many lessons you learn over the years, and trying to bring it all together and to have it pay off on one day is exactly what we’re all hunting for out there,” Crawford concluded.
Fourth Career Victory for Wierer
Italy’s Wierer, who frequently performs very well in this competition format and also won the individual in Ruhpolding in 2016 (Crawford placed 18th back then as the best North American) set the best time on Thursday, crossing the line after 41:29.0 minutes.
“I am really happy about this,” Wierer said at the press conference. “I knew that it’s all about the shooting. In the last individual competition I shot really bad, but the last weeks I feel really confident about my shooting. I think the track was really good, and hard conditions are much better for my skiing. The shooting range wasn’t difficult today, there was nearly no wind.”
Asked about having to wait if her time would ultimately be good enough for first place, she added with a laugh: “I was looking [at] Rosanna, and I was afraid of her. But finally I saw that she was some seconds behind me. I wasn’t sure because on the last round I lost a lot, I was really tired, but at the end she didn’t get me!”
On her 35th birthday, Mäkäräinen finished second (+12.7). She was the only finisher in the top five with a penalty, incurred during her first prone shooting.
“It’s a good present,” she said at the press conference when asked about her second place. “I have actually managed to do many good races on my birthday, so this is nice. … 19 out of 20 is really good for me, probably my best shooting this winter, so I am really happy about that and not thinking too much about that one penalty.”
“It’s an amazing place,” she added when asked about her tendency to do well in Ruhpolding. “I like it a lot here because the crowd is really close to us, and there were a lot of people from Finland here, also my parents and their friends. So it was a nice atmosphere today.”
She added that she did not intend to extensively celebrate her birthday with her family.
“I will celebrate by having a massage and good dinner,” Mäkäräinen said. “Just basic things, the athlete’s life goes on, we have more races to come.”
Dunklee 27th, Ransom 34th
For US Biathlon, Susan Dunklee finished 27th with three penalties (1+1+1+0), staying ahead of a number of competitors who performed better on the range thanks to her 14th-ranked ski time.
“Certainly the highlight for me today was watching Rosanna crush it,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “Her whole team, athletes and staff, were overjoyed. It’s inspiring to see and lends positive energy to all the North Americans going forward.”
“This was the first race that felt normal for me and not an extreme high or low,” she wrote of her own race. “It’s a relief. The skiing felt great today and I have no doubts in it going forward. Shooting is finally rounding into form; 85% is a solid result. My goals going forward are to stay healthy and happy and I believe that’s what I need most to perform well in February.”
Starting about in the middle of the field in bib 43, her teammate Clare Egan was initially 35th as she came into the finish, waving to the cheering crowd as she was shown on the video wall. As more athletes ended their races ahead of her, she ultimately finished 57th (+4:26.3) with three one-minute penalties (0+1+0+2).
“Finally a race I can be proud of!” Egan commented in an Instagram post.
“We will field our first women’s relay this weekend,” Dunklee wrote of their team, which will be joined by athletes who competed at the IBU Cup in Arber, Germany, on Thursday. “It has been a challenging season so far living and traveling with such a small crew, trying to stay upbeat and carry the team with a skeleton group.”
Starting the race early in bib 5 and thus completing her race before Crawford’s had even begun, Biathlon Canada’s Julia Ransom placed 34th (+3:35.0) with two penalties (1+1+0+0). Sarah Beaudry finished 53rd (+4:18.6) with two penalties (0+1+1+0), and Emma Lunder was 67th (+5:21.7) with four penalties (1+0+2+1).
After their own races had concluded, they could only wait for Crawford after learning about the great day she was having and excitedly ran out into the finish to greet her.
“It’s really amazing for our country and for our sport,” Crawford said in the press conference. “Hopefully there will be a few more eyes on biathlon during the Olympics. The last person to get a podium was Zina Kocher in the individual as well [a third place in Östersund during the 2006/2007 season]. So this is becoming a special race for Canada. Julia Ransom had a personal best with a ninth place in Östersund, so we seem to be individual specialists.”
Skardino Earns Individual Discipline World Cup
Since the IBU does not count the races at the upcoming Olympics for World Cup points and standings, this second individual race was also the last one on the competition calendar this season.
Thus Nadezda Skardino of Belarus, who won the first individual race of the season in Östersund, managed to claim the “crystal globe” award in that discipline by finishing seventh in Ruhpolding on Thursday (+1:04.8, with no penalty). It was Skardino’s first World Cup discipline title.
Despite finishing ahead of her in fourth on Thursday and another third place from the race in Östersund, Ukraine’s Dzhima could not make up enough points and placed second in the standings just five points back, while Mäkäräinen was third. Even without Crawford still finishing ahead of Skardino and Dhzima the outcome would have been the same.
“It was my dream, and now I’m minus one dream in my life,” a smiling Skardino told the IBU. “I am very happy, because I thought about it after my win in Östersund. … And now I did it! Today I was not very fast on the tracks, I only thought about my clean shooting. I understood that I can win [the discipline title] if I shoot clean. I knew if some more people stay between Yuliia and me I could lose more points and still lose this, but after all people finished I was very happy I did it!”
Crawford placed 12th in that ranking as the best North American, scoring 2 points for her 39th place in Östersund and 48 for the third place in Ruhpolding.
The women’s World Cup Total Score leader Anastasia Kuzmina of Slovakia, coming off two victories last weekend in Oberhof, placed eighth on Thursday (+1:32.3, with three penalties) to retain her lead there.
Races in Ruhpolding continue with a men’s relay on Friday and women’s relay on Saturday, before concluding with mass starts on Sunday. Crawford is now qualified for that race as one of the five best athletes this week not currently in the top 25 of the overall World Cup; she is now ranked 48th in the Total Score standings.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting