PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It was a day for firsts here at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
At the Alpensia Biathlon center, athletes for the first time saw mild temperatures, blue skies, and — perhaps most importantly for success in the individual race — tame winds. All welcome firsts at what’s been a blustery and downright chilly Games, and it came just a day after the race jury postponed the women’s 15 kilometer individual race due to high winds.
But another first was the most stunning. Twenty-two year old Swedish biathlete Hanna Öberg skied with panache and shot with zen-like nerves on the biggest athletic stage of her life to win gold in the rescheduled 15 k.
“It’s really big for me that I could take this step,” she said in a press conference. “And to have my parents here, it means a lot, and also my boyfriend. To share this with everyone means the most to me. It’s really big.”
The individual race is relentless in its capacity to shatter nerves. Five three-kilometer loops in total and twenty shots — four shooting rounds alternating prone and standing — and each miss carries a draconian one-minute penalty.
Anything can happen on individual race day. Shoot clean and the podium’s top step is within grasp. Miss and you plummet through the rankings. That means opportunity, but also stress.
While many of her competitors have experience trying to manage that stress (successfully or not), Öberg hadn’t been here before.
“I’m 22 years old and last season was my first in the World Cup, and also my first World Championships, in Hochfilzen,” Öberg said, laughing at the incredible spot she had climbed to. “The season before that, I took two gold medals at the Junior World Championships. That’s also the last time that I shot four zeros in a competition.”
Öberg has only notched three top-10′s on the World Cup, and before Thursday’s golden performance, Öberg’s fifth in the pursuit here matched a career best.
But shoot clean in this race, and you’ve made your own opportunities to grab gold.
Opportunity knocked for Öberg after three clean shooting rounds. She left the range in first place on her fourth ski loop and kept pace, setting herself up for a tense five shot sequence. Enough Swedish fans populated the stands to cheer as each of Öberg’s targets fell. The final 3 k loop remained tense for the what ifs for the young Öberg: a snagged V-board or a corner skied too wide could mean a medal gone.
None of that happened, of course.
Öberg stopped the clock in 41:02.7, but she had to wait nearly half an hour to know that she had sealed the deal. She had an early bib and among the many athletes behind her in the start order was last season’s world number one, Laura Dahlmeier of Germany, a late starter in bib 80.
But Dahlmeier only shot 19/20, and couldn’t catch Öberg’s time on the tracks, ending up with a bronze medal instead.
“I think not just me, I think everybody knows that it was a really, really great day for Hanna,” Dahlmeier – who won the other two gold medals awarded so far at these Olympics – said in the press conference. “I think it was her first time to be on the podium, and it’s really great to be on the podium at the Olympics. It must be one of the best days of her life… with a clean shooting and good skiing performance, you can win a race. And today not so many athletes shot zero, I think just three athletes. It’s great for her and also for the whole Swedish team.”
“Of course I’m surprised,” Öberg said of her win. “I could not believe this before and I knew that maybe this performance today could have taken me to a medal but that I would win this race, it’s just unbelievable.”
If it was a surprise for Oberg, it was a turnaround for Sweden, which did not send a women’s team to the 2014 Olympics because the Olympic Committee did not feel that any of the biathletes had the potential for acceptably strong results.
But in the 15 k, Linn Persson finished 11th and Mona Brorsson 14th; Brorsson was also 10th in the pursuit.
“I just want to say, I’m super impressed with Sweden,” American biathlete Susan Dunklee said in the finish area, when Dahlmeier was still out on course. “Holy shit. In 2014, Sweden did not take a women’s team to the Olympics. I felt so bad for the one woman on the team who was on the bubble for that and they decided not to take her, which I thought was really stupid. And then turn around, four years later, you have a potential gold medalist here, [and] couple of the top 10’s or something?”
The two pre-race favorites were Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia and Dahlmeier, both of whom were already medalists at this Games.
Kuzmina placed second in the 10 k pursuit on Monday. If Öberg kept it together considering her lack of championship experience, Kuzmina faltered twice on the range despite hers. Kuzmina raced to gold in the 2014 Olympic sprint, and gold and silver in the 2010 Olympic sprint and pursuit, respectively.
Despite suffering a single miss in the first standing and second prone rounds, for two misses total, Kuzima finished with a time just 24.7 seconds behind Öberg’s. The Slovak made up her two-minute shooting penalty on the skis, clocking the fastest ski time for each of her five ski loops to earn her first career championship medal in the individual format race.
“To be honest, I have to say that this is the event which I had the smallest ambitions from [in] for all the individual-start events here,” Kuzmina said during the press conference. “But I told myself that this is another chance to get a medal, and I wanted to do everything like in training, everything perfectly, fully focused [on] each shoot.”
Germany’s Dahlmeier, a double-gold medalist in PyeongChang, having won the sprint and pursuit, won bronze (+41.2). She had a single penalty in her first shooting round.
“With the first shooting I had this miss and just tried to stay focused,” Dahlmeier said. “I know it with one miss, it must be possible to reach the podium, but it’s better to have a clean shooting, and after the first miss, I tried to stay focused.”
Shooting clean the remainder of her rounds, Dahlmeier charged on the skis. Of her five ski loops, two were the second fastest splits, three the third fastest.
Her German teammate Franziska Preuss of Germany finished fourth, +59.0 with clean shooting, and Paulina Fialkova of Slovakia placed fifth (+1:02.3) with one missed shot. Poland’s Monika Hojnicz finished sixth (+1:54.8) with one missed shot as well.
Three North Americans in Top 30
American biathlete Susan Dunklee was the best placed North American in 19th (+3:26.3), after two misses on the range.
Posting a 66th place on Saturday’s 7.5 k sprint, Dunklee had not advanced to contest the pursuit, which was disappointing for last year’s World Championships silver medalist.
“I’m still bummed about that day,” Dunklee said of the sprint. “But I think one of the things that biathlon does is train you how to be resilient and how to pick yourself up over and over again. It was certainly not the first day that sort of things happened to me. Maybe it’s the first day at a really big, big stage like this, but I think I’ve had lots of experience over the years for refocusing. You have to let yourself be sad for a few hours but then you have to set a deadline and say, OK, by this time of day, I’m going to just start only allowing myself to focus on the positives again and move forward.”
Thursday’s 15 k proved more to Dunklee’s liking. She’s mending a cold which she says has left her feeling sapped.
“I was so happy to have that extra day off [due to the wind postponement] and I’m slowly getting over this cold,” Dunklee explained. “It’s getting better and better each day but it’s not quite 100 percent. I felt like I could focus on the shooting range. My head was a little bit more clear, less foggy, so that was really nice.”
Dunklee’s teammate Joanne Reid finished 22nd (+3:34.1), for her best-ever result in top-level international competition, with just one missed shot. Reid was not scheduled to race Thursday’s 15 k individual, after finishing 86h – second from last – in the sprint.
Instead, Reid’s teammate Maddie Phaneuf had originally been penciled in for the individual, but came down with strep throat earlier in the week.
“I am really happy that I had a good race, just because I took Maddie’s spot here,” Reid added. “I didn’t want to go out there and have a bad day. And she is really disappointed that she didn’t get to race, so this one’s for her.”
Reid made the best of her opportunity. With her limited experience on the 3 k loop, Reid said her strategy required her to dial the pacing back slightly.
“There is nothing technical out here,” Reid said. “So you really are hammering, short recovery, you’re hammering, short recovery, you’re hammering, and then it’s this long downhill into the range. And if you are not really careful your legs will start shaking and that will throw off your shooting. So you have to be really focused the whole time and that can be really hard in a 15 k.”
Also for the U.S., Clare Egan finished 62nd (+6:53.6) with four penalties and Emily Dreissigacker 67th (+7:09.2), also with four penalties.
For Canada, Rosanna Crawford led the way in 26th (+3:48.7) with two penalties — both occurred in her first shooting round. During her interview, Crawford was upset for second-guessing herself during that round.
“I’m just frustrated,” Crawford said. “I made a correction in prone and then corrected back and missed where I corrected back to. I think I definitely could’ve hit 20. I know it’s a hard thing to do in biathlon, but I was feeling really confident on the range. I’m just really mad that I didn’t trust myself. This was my best chance to have a top 10. Hopefully I’ll qualify for the mass start but we’ll have to see.”
For now, Crawford remains on the “waiting list” for the mass start. Two athletes will have to drop out for a start position to open up for the Canadian.
The Canadian had eyed these races as potential successes. As recently as January 11th, Crawford earned her first career IBU World Cup individual podium in in a 15 k individual in Ruhpolding, Germany. Her third place in the individual was followed by a fourth place, also in Ruhpolding, in the mass start. Even in disappointment, Crawford said the upside was learning a hard lesson as she moves forward.
“As I was warming up, I was like, ‘you have to trust yourself, you have to trust yourself’, and then I just didn’t do it,” Crawford said. “The next prone and the next standings, I did trust myself and I made a correction. All the hits were centered, so I definitely learned a lot. It’s unfortunate that you have to learn a lesson in an Olympic race. You wish that you could just go out there and do what you know how to do.”
Canadian Sarah Beaudry was close behind Crawford in 29th (+3:58.4) with one missed shot. It was the second-best result of her career, behind a 23rd-place World Cup finish in Oberhof, Germany, this January.
“Overall I’m really happy hitting 19 in my first Olympic race, and especially in race like the individual where it really counts,” Beaudry said. “I was really happy with that, especially because the last couple weeks I’ve been struggling with my prone position a bit, and I really felt confident and solid in my prone, so that was nice.”
Also for Canada, Emma Lunder finished 54th (+5:49.4) with three penalties and Julia Ransom was 74th (+8:31.4) with five missed shots.
– Alex Kochon, Gabby Naranja, Harald Zimmer contributed