Before this season, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic had never raced into the top ten in a biathlon World Cup.
She had only ever stood on the podium in relays – and then only once, in Hochfilzen, Austria. The 23-year-old had never made it into the top 60 of the World Cup standings, and had only scored 39 points in her young career.
So earlier this season when she started winning, it was a surprise.
And this weekend in Khanty-Mansiysk, it was still a surprise. First Soukalova won the sprint, then the pursuit, and finally, on Sunday, used perfect shooting and the second-fastest ski time of the day to win the 12.5 k mass start by ten seconds to cap off the World Cup season.
“I would like to say nothing, because this is an impressive moment for me right now – it is perfect,” she said in the post-race press conference. “I said yesterday that the win was the biggest shock of my life, but now I can say that again… this is the biggest shock of my life!”
In other ways, though, it’s not so unusual that Soukalova should rise to the top. She has good help: her father, Karel Soukal, is a biathlon coach in Poland, while her mother (also Gabriela) was part of Czechoslovakia’s silver-medal cross country skiing relay team in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Together, the two are Soukalova’s coaches.
“We were watching the race on the internet through our phone,” her mother told Czech newspaper Sport Aktualne. “It was pretty exciting. I didn’t think that she could win a third time. It’s a really great performance and I bow down before her.”
The difference for the young Czech this year is not only good shooting, like her perfect work on the range today, but much faster ski speed which has allowed her to be competitive where other shooting specialists, like Marie Laure Brunet of France, have been left constantly just out of the picture even when they clean.
The hat trick in Russia makes it four wins and two additional podiums for Soukalova, who will finish the year ranked sixth in the World Cup total score.
Despite her clean shooting and fast skiing, it wasn’t always clear that Soukalova was going to win; after the first stage she was 20 seconds behind the leaders. Even after the third stage, when she had made it up to second position, she was skiing more than 15 seconds behind Vita Semerenko of Ukraine.
But Soukalova skied her way up to the Ukrainian, and then Semerenko missed a shot in the final standing stage while Soukalova cleaned. For the first time in the entire race, she had the lead, and held it all the way to the finish.
Behind her, Marie Dorin Habert of France moved into second position with a clean stage of her own; she was 15 seconds back. There was a gap of another 25 seconds to Olga Vilukhina of Russia, then Kaisa Makarainen of Finland a few seconds behind her.
While Dorin Habert was safe in second, no amount of cheering by the home team’s fans could keep Vilukhina on the podium. Makarainen skied the fastest finishing lap of the race and moved into third, closing all but ten seconds on Dorin Habert.
“I felt tired before the race today,” Makarainen said in a press conference. “But when I started the last loop and heard the gap between me and Semerenko, I knew that I needed to try. I was only thinking that I needed to be third today.”
It was the sixth podium of the season for Makarainen and the third for Dorin Habert. Despite the fact that neither won a race this year, they will land fifth and fourth, respectively, in the rankings.
“I was consistently good, except for the World Championships,” said a happy Dorin Habert of her season.
Despite a lackluster 13th-place finish, Tora Berger of Norway was so dominant during the rest of the season that she easily claimed the World Cup title.
No U.S. or Canadian women qualified for the mass start.