Rounding the sprint course in Osrblie, Slovakia, on Friday, American Chloe Levins didn’t let her mind wander to what could be. She had cleaned her first prone stage, which put her in contention for a top 10 among the field of 92 in the youth women’s 6-kilometer sprint, and another shooting stage without a miss could mean the race of her life in her second race at the 2017 International Biathlon Union (IBU) Youth World Championships.
But again, she didn’t go there. Levins, an 18-year-old Middlebury College freshman from Rutland, Vt., had already captured a Youth Worlds career best in 14th in the 10 k individual two days earlier on Wednesday. After knocking down her first three standing targets, Levins missed her fourth shot before hitting the last one. She had to ski a penalty lap, yet heading out on the final loop, she was still in contention for a top 10.
“Attaining a career-best Jr. Worlds result never crossed my mind during the race,” Levins wrote in an email after. “Before heading out on the last loop, I was completely focussed on getting my toe across the finish line as fast as I possibly could.”
An early starter in bib 9, she initially finished second to Austria’s Anna Gandler, 33.2 seconds of Gandler’s time. While the Austrian would remain on the podium and ultimately place second, Levins dropped to 11th by the end of the race, 1:39.7 behind the winner (Italy’s Irene Lardschneider) for Levins’s second-straight top 15 of the week. More importantly, it was her new career best.
“There were a lot of strong athletes that started behind me, so I maintained no result-based expectations,” Levins wrote. “It stings to see the top six within five seconds of me, but I didn’t leave anything out there.”
She was less than nine seconds out of fourth place.
“In both races so far she has been within ‘striking distance’ of the podium, which means she in the mix with some of best girls of her age,” US Biathlon assistant coach Erik Lewish wrote in an email.
Conditions haven’t been easy in Osrblie with everything from wind to rain to slush, and on Friday, racers had to manage shooting in variable winds. Fortunately for Levins, the wind was relatively calm for both her shooting stages, she wrote.
“Every race is a learning experience, and Junior Worlds is no different,” she continued. “Despite being a little frustrated with a couple shots, I took a lot of positives from Wednesday’s [individual] race. Today, I really focused on working through transitions on the track I thought I could improve upon.”
She’ll start the youth women’s 7.5 k pursuit on Sunday in 11th, 1:40 behind Lardschneider in first and just two seconds out of 10th place.
“I think Sunday’s pursuit race will play to her strengths well,” Lewish wrote. “It is a short ski loop (only 1.5k for the youth) which puts extra emphasis on the shooting and she has been shooting extremely well at these world championships, despite some challenging wind conditions.”
He pointed out that she moved up from starting 22nd to finishing fourth in the pursuit at last year’s Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, with clean shooting.
“She has also been skiing well despite two days of rain and deteriorating loops conditions,” Lewish wrote. “Two years ago in Minsk at the Junior World Champs she shot clean in the sprint and finished 18th, now with one miss (and the 20th fastest ski time) she is 11th here in Osrblie, so she has improved a lot since her first world champs.
“Despite being a full-time student at Middlebury College, she still finds time to get biathlon workouts in with Algis Shalna — who introduced her to biathlon,” he added. “I think these performances here show that she is ready to make the jump to the junior category next year.”
“Studying while abroad is not easy for anyone,” Levins explained in an email earlier in the week. “Two of my other teammates, Amanda [Kautzer] and Nina [Armstrong], are also student-athletes at the collegiate level, so we spend a lot of our free time studying together. Speaking for myself, I believe having something besides sport to do during the day is healthy for a person’s preparation and mindset before any competition.”
Asked about her goals for Sunday’s pursuit, she emphasized that she’d be focusing on Saturday first.
“Overall, I’m feeling confident and relaxed,” she wrote. “The focus right now is on tomorrow [Saturday], and tomorrow is all about recovery. It’s biathlon; everything is possible.”
After starting 17th, Lardschneider won the race by a resounding 1:06.5 minutes with 19-for-20 shooting (0+1), just like Levins. She knocked Gandler to second, where Gandler would remain after shooting one penalty as well (0+1). Italy’s second skier on the podium, Samuela Comola was one of two women to clean the two-stage race, and she finished 1:18.1 back in third. (Finland’s Maija Keränen also shot clean for 13th.)
Lardschneider will start the pursuit with 1:07 minute ahead of Gandler, and Comola will follow 11 seconds later. After that, the fourth starter, Slovenia’s Tais Vozel, will lead a group of eight women all starting within nine seconds of one another, 1:31 behind Lardschneider.
Also qualifying for the 60-woman pursuit, Canada’s Shilo Rousseau placed 45th (+4:08.0) in the sprint with three penalties (0+3). Three Americans qualified as well, with Grace Gilliland finishing 55th (+4:35.2) with four misses (1+3) and Amanda Kautzer 59th (+4:42.7) with six penalties (3+3) on Friday.
The fourth U.S. woman, Helen Wilson missed the top-60 requirement in 67th (+5:10.0) with four misses (2+2).
Canada’s Frédérique Pérusse finished 73rd (+5:48.2) with four misses (1+3), Anna Sellers was 82nd (+6:47.2) with six penalties (4+2), and Élise Sauvé was 86th (+7:41.7) with six misses (3+3) as well.
In the youth men’s 7.5 k sprint on Friday, Leo Grandbois — Canada’s gold medalist in the 12.5 k individual two days earlier — finished 14th, 1:52.9 out of first with three penalties (1+2). With the 10th-fastest overall course time, he was able to recover from skiing around 30th with two loops to go. Despite two misses in standing, he left the range with the 14th-ranked split and held that position to the finish.
“Because I won the last race, I felt the obligation to repeat this performance,” Grandbois, 17, wrote in an email afterward. “Otherwise I would not be as happy, even if I would have done a top 5.”
He didn’t feel as good as he had in Wednesday’s individual and recalled “suffering” on the last loop. Considering he wasn’t at his best, Grandbois noted that 14th place was “quite good.”
“I think it just says that I am quite strong even [during] a bad race,” he added. “For the pursuit, I am looking forward to earning positions. I am starting 1 min 53 sec back, and 1 min  sec back from the podium. It is long way there but I don’t want to make the mistakes I did last race.”
Leading the youth men out in Sunday’s 10 k pursuit will be France’s Emilien Claude, who won the sprint in 20:18.3. He started 25th and bumped Ukraine’s Serhiy Telen, the 10th starter, out of first by 25.2 seconds. Claude shot two misses (1+1) but overcame them with the fastest course time. Telen held onto silver after one standing miss (0+1) after Norway’s Sivert Guttorm Bakken in bib 39 finished third, 19.4 seconds off his time and 44.6 seconds behind Claude, with two penalties (1+1). For the second-straight race, Italy’s Cedric Christille narrowly missed a medal in fourth place (+52.0) after two standing penalties (0+2).
In the pursuit, Claude will start 25 seconds before Telen and 45 seconds ahead of Bakken. Grandbois will start with Russia’s Said Karimulla Khalili, who placed 13th in the sprint (and second in the individual), and just 3 seconds behind Switzerland’s Niklas Hartweg in 12th. Ahead of them, it’s another eight seconds to 11th place.
Also qualifying for the pursuit are Canada’s Adam Runnalls, who placed 32nd (+2:46.8) in the sprint despite five misses (3+2), and American Vasek Cervenka, who finished 49th (+3:37.1) with six penalties (4+2).
As for the other three U.S. starters, Alex Kilby was 69th (+4:47.4) with three misses (1+2), Jacob Pearson 76th (+5:07.1) with five penalties (2+3), and Camren Nielsen 82nd (+5:18.8) with five misses as well (3+2).
Canada’s Robert Kreitz finished 84th (+5:37.2) with five penalties (1+4) and Thomas Hulsman was 87th (+5:58.6) with six misses (3+3).