Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Biathlon Canada’s Nathan Smith and Emma Lunder.
Calm wind and a light drizzle for the men’s International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup sprint on Friday afternoon in Hochfilzen, Austria, turned into a full-blown blizzard for the women’s sprint that followed. One multiple-time Olympic and world champion weathered the elements best, as Darya Domracheva of Belarus won the latter with clean shooting. She was one of four women in the top 20 that cleared all 10 targets amid the white-out conditions with a strong wind ripping sideways across the range.
“I am grateful that I was able to handle these challenging weather conditions today,” said the 31-year-old Domracheva, who had her first child just over a year ago, according to an IBU press release. “It has been a long time since I was on top of the podium, since March 2015, so it is nice to be here.”
Domracheva is the defending Olympic champion in three disciplines: the individual, pursuit and mass start. On Friday, she won the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint for her first win over a year and a half, after taking the 2015/2016 season off to have a child and returning to the World Cup this past January. At 2017 IBU World Championships, she raced to silver in the pursuit.
But on Friday, in the second sprint of the World Cup season, she was back to her winning ways in the most challenging of conditions. After the men’s race, wet snow began to fall more steadily. Temperatures dropped, making for drier snow that intensified in the minutes leading up to the race.
“The conditions were completely different in the race from the zeroing, so you had to adapt today,” said Domracheva, who started 71st of 102 women and bested Anastasia Kuzmina’s time by 22.1 seconds for the win in 22:40.2 minutes. Kuzmina, of Slovakia, who started just ahead of her in bib 69, placed second with a single penalty (1+0), bumping Italy’s Dorothea Wierer (bib 48), who also missed one prone target (1+0), to third (+30.6).
“It was really strange; I could see nothing on the tracks and I had to take off my glasses,” Wierer said, according to the IBU. “In these conditions, the race was decided on the shooting range; with one mistake, that was pretty good. … I think the conditions were the same for everyone; it was snowing for the whole race.”
“We were all hoping that the forecasted storm wouldn’t materialize, but just as predicted, the flakes started getting heavy about 20 minutes before the start,” US Biathlon’s Clare Egan explained in a post-race email to FasterSkier. “That’s when one of our wax techs says he thought about locking the wax cabin and fleeing the scene. Lucky for us he did not, and I think our skis were the best in the field today. I don’t know how they can make such fast skis for such slow conditions but somehow they manage!”
Egan led three American women in 35th, 1:56.1 minutes behind Domracheva, with a total of two penalties: one in prone and another in standing (1+1).
“While I was warming up the wind was extremely strong and then it seemed less intense during my race so I think the earlier starters had worse wind,” Egan recalled. “I took a couple clicks in prone [i.e., adjusted my sight for the wind] but that’s very standard. I actually did a completely normal shooting routine today in both prone and standing, which is a good thing. The trick in biathlon is to replicate your normal shooting routine even when you are in a high-stress race scenario.”
Egan started 68th, just ahead of Kuzmina. Her overall shooting time ranked 29th in the field, while her course time was 42nd. In comparison, Domracheva had the 43rd-ranked shooting time but was fifth-fastest out on course. Kuzmina was sixth fastest on course and had the second-fastest range time (including setup and actual shooting time).
“I did not do anything special today, but because I had special skis I managed a decent course time,” Egan wrote. “This year I am making a point to accept however my body feels on a given day and just focus on technique. When I do that, I know that even if I don’t feel great I can still have a great race.”
In the second World Cup stop of the season, 35th is a season best for Egan and her best result since placing 34th in a sprint last March. Last week in Östersund, Sweden, she placed 75th in the sprint and 79th in the 15 k individual.
“To borrow an expression I just learned from a British biathlete, I’m super duper chuffed with my race,” she wrote. “Last week’s racing was a real blow to my confidence so I’m very proud of the work I did to turn things around. It took a lot of mental gymnastics and help from our sports psychologist. Today’s race wasn’t exceptional but it was a solid biathlon performance and I’m very content with that. I will be completely happy when all of my teammates have races they can feel good about too. We are very much in this together.”
Egan will be the lone American woman racing in Saturday’s pursuit in Hochfilzen; both Emily Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee finished outside the qualifying top 60. Dreissigacker placed 89th (+3:49.1) with three penalties (1+2) and Dunklee was 97th (+4:52.9) with eight penalties (3+5).
Two Canadian women landed in the top 60 to make the 10 k pursuit, with Emma Lunder in 42nd (+2:03.5) with a single miss (1+0) and Rosanna Crawford in 49th (+2:19.6) with two penalties (1+1). Megan Bankes just missed the cutoff in 65th (+2:55.3) with three standing penalties (0+3), and Julia Ransom finished 100th (+5:20.6) with seven misses (3+4).
“I was really happy with my shooting in the race,” Lunder wrote in an email. “I made sure to focus on my cues after making a 5-click correction for the wind, and took a bit of extra time setting up. It was snowing quite heavily, so I did my best to make every shot a good one, but unfortunately I did have one get away from me. When I came into standing it was a lot calmer, but still snowing a lot, so I was pleased with shooting clean! I’ve been working a lot this year on getting my confidence back in the shooting range, and I’ve seen improvements in both my prone and standing.”
She started second, with only one racer clearing the tracks ahead of her.
“I followed the tracks of Bib 1 for the first loop, just trying not to ski off the trail!” Lunder reflected. “It was really deep snow for that first loop but all things considered our wax team gave me some pretty quick skis for the race. I felt okay skiing today but I still need to find that next gear when I’m racing, so I’m excited to have a lot of girls around me to chase in the pursuit.”
Smith 19th, Doherty 22nd
In the men’s 10 k sprint that opened the Hochfilzen weekend, Canada’s Nathan Smith raced to 19th — his best non-relay World Cup result since March 2016 — and American Sean Doherty placed 22nd for his best result since finishing 18th in a World Cup pursuit last March. Both Smith and Doherty shot clean, along with 12 others out of 108 competitors.
“Conditions for our race were quite good,” Doherty explained in an email. “Calm winds and overcast. Unfortunately a storm blew in for the women’s race so they had a much tougher course and range today.”
The top-four men all shot a perfect 10-for-10, with Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø in bib 36 setting a faster time around the course than France’s Martin Fourcade (bib 38), who also shot clean. Bø took the win in 24:18.4 and was 12.1 seconds clear of Fourcade, who ended up second. Slovenia’s Jakov Fak notched his second-straight podium (coming off a second place in Östersund’s pursuit) in third (+35.4).
“It is always better to be first rather than second,” said Bø, who also won the 20 k individual last week in Ostersund, according to an IBU press release. “I was lucky to shoot clean today. That is what I needed to get the win … My plan was like: go until you die, attack all the way. If you want to win, you cannot save the power…I was quite tired in the last loop, but I managed to hold on.”
Bø’s overall course time was the fastest of the field, 15.3 seconds faster than Fourcade.
“I cannot comment on any fight because Johannes had too big of an advantage after the standing shooting,” Fourcade told the IBU, referring to his 20-second deficit to Bø after the second shooting stage. “I am just happy that I was able to catch some seconds in the end. We had about the same ski speed as last week, but today he shot clean and I had not chance to win.”
“I shot clean and ran as fast as I could; that is all you can do,” said Fak, who started 33rd. “I never worried much after that … You can never be sure about the results until everyone has finished.”
Smith started 12th and finished 1:31.9 off Bø’s winning time, posting the fifth-fastest overall shooting time while hitting every target. Smith’s course time ranked 54th overall.
“I was carefull to take it easier for the last 15 sec before the range,” Smith, 31, wrote in an email when asked about his clean shooting. “It’s an awkward entry with a short steep bump.”
“I’m looking to continue the solid shooting while upping my ski speed a bit, back to around what my shape had been like in November,” he stated. “I’m happy with today’s race. Top 20 is a good accomplishment and a solid step in my comeback. For the pursuit I’m aiming to improve a little and grab a top 16.”
Doherty started in bib 79 and ended up tying Slovenia’s Klemen Bauer for 22nd, 1:39.2 back. (Bauer had a single penalty in prone.)
“As long as I stay disciplined the targets will fall,” the 22-year-old Doherty wrote of his clean shooting. “Overall I am happy with my race today. I am excited to take the momentum into the pursuit tomorrow.”
Saturday will be his first pursuit of the season after placing 82nd in the Östersund sprint. He also placed 38th in the 20 k individual there.
“The start to the season in Ostersund was tough,” Doherty noted. “That course there is one of the hardest on the whole circuit and we had exceptionally poor snow conditions for the individual, so that was a brutal race. Here in Austria I was looking to make a step froward towards the level of racing I know I am capable of and take care of the final Olympic criteria.
“To be honest my skiing is pretty poor right now, and that’s fine,” he added.
Doherty’s overall shooting time was 29th fastest while his course time ranked 57th.
“The important part of the season is still a ways away and that is when I will be on form,” he wrote. “In general I think I am off to a good start this season but there are still many races to go. So I just want to keep working and using each race as an opportunity to keep improving.”
All four Canadian men qualified for Saturday’s 12.5 k pursuit, with Scott Gow finishing 43rd (+2:25.1) with three penalties (2+1), Brendan Green 51st (+2:30.3) with one standing miss (0+1), and Christian Gow 54th with clean shooting.
For the U.S., Lowell Bailey is also in after placing 53rd (+2:32.4) with two penalties (2+0). Tim Burke finished outside the necessary top 60 in 73rd (+3:00.7) with three misses (1+2), Leif Nordgren was 98th (+3:40.2) with three standing penalties (0+3), and Paul Schommer 103rd (+3:54.6) with three misses as well (1+2).
The men race at 6:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time Saturday, followed by the women at 8:45 a.m. EST.