Wild day in Olympic biathlon, with Germany and France out of contention in the first leg while Canada and the USA were in the top five with one leg to go. And then an inspiring winner — Ukraine, torn apart by unrest at home, came together for a strong win.
Event: Women’s relay
Medalists: Ukraine, Russia, Norway
SportsMyriad projections: Norway, Germany, Russia
How U.S. fared: Susan Dunklee is the story of the Games for the USA out at the Nordic venues. She was once again absolutely fearless, taking off ahead of the contenders. She needed two extra shots in the prone shooting and one standings, sticking close to the leaders and handing off in fourth place, just 12.9 seconds back.
Hannah Dreissigacker, still a relative newcomer to biathlon, needed three extra shots at each stage but avoided the penalty loop and skied quickly. She was in sixth, 58.2 seconds back, at the exchange.
Sara Studebaker shot the lights out. She cleaned all 10 shots and stuck with the Czech Republic and Switzerland to contend for fifth place. At the exchange, she was indeed in fifth.
Annalies Cook stayed in that group through the first lap. Two missed shots let the Czech Republic get away, but she stayed ahead of Switzerland and the charging Italian team. Two more misses let the favorites pass, but she came across in seventh, the best result for the U.S. women in this event.
What happened: Colder but not really better. We had rain and snow, and Chad Salmela said the new snow would retain a bit of the rain to make a bit of slush on top of the solid man-made snow.
Maybe that accounted for anomalies that took out two of the contenders. Germany’s Franziska Preuss, a 19-year-old who got the nod ahead of Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, had some sort of equipment problem on the first lap, possibly from a fall not seen on camera. She came into the shooting range after nearly everyone else had gone, then needed to blow snow out of her rifle to shoot. She used three extra shots and hit the checkpoint nearly two minutes down.
Then the cameras found France’s Marie-Laure Brunet face down in the snow with medical crews racing to her aid. NBC’s reporters later said she had felt dizzy and collapsed.
Russia and Ukraine set the pace early. Then Italy’s Dorothea Wierer flew past them to lead at the first exchange.
Norway had a rough first leg, sitting 50.8 seconds back in ninth place. Tiril Eckhoff erased half of that deficit, pulling Norway into third past Russia’s Olga Zaitseva.
The developing story was Ukraine. The war-torn country would have something to cheer, with Vita Semerenko putting them in contention with her first leg and Juliya Dzhyma shooting cleanly to take the lead when she handed off to the other Semerenko twin, Valj.
At the halfway point, the Czech Republic was second but had just sent out its best athlete, Gabriela Soukalova. Then Norway, Russia and surprising Canada.
Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko came into the range first. She hesitated twice but went five-for-five. So did Russia’s Ekaterina Shumilova and Norway’s Ann Kristin Aafedt Flatland, each of whom left a little more than 40 seconds behind Semerenko. Next was a shocker: Canada’s Megan Heinicke. The Czech Republic challenge had faded.
Semerenko struggled on the standing shoot. She missed three of her initial five shots. She took plenty of time before each of her extra shots but managed to get out without a penalty loop. Shumilova made the crowd cheer by clearing her shots and pulling through 23.4 seconds behind. Then Flatland a couple of seconds later. And Heinicke once again shot cleanly, keeping a 30-second edge on the Czech Republic, Switzerland and the USA.
Ukraine had an excellent anchor lined up — Olena Pidrushna, the reigning print world champion. She took the course with a 28.4-second lead over Norway, which sent out the great Tora Berger. Russia, right on Norway’s tail, had Olympic sprint silver medalist, Olga Vilukhina. Canada was less than 20 seconds behind them, improbably poised to swipe a medal if the favorites faltered.
Pidrushna barely missed her second shot but cleaned it quickly with her first extra shot. Canada’s Zina Kocher zipped around the first lap and came into the range in second place, but Vilukhina and Berger shot quickly to get away from her. Kocher missed twice and dropped 25 seconds behind the third-place Berger.
Ukraine’s lead was down to 6.7 seconds, and Pidrushna could see Vilukhina come in alongside her. But Pidrushna mowed down all five targets. Vilukhina missed once and left the range 11.1 seconds back. Berger had an opportunity but also missed once, stumbling out of the range 25.1 seconds back.
The North Americans finally faltered. Canada’s Kocher only knocked down three targets with her eight shots, consigned her to two penalty loops. The USA’s Cook missed twice, falling behind two stars — Italy’s Karin Oberhofer and Belarus’s Darya Domracheva.
The three medalists were set — the Czech Republic was a distant fourth — but the order was still in doubt. The crowd roared for Vilukhina to catch Pidrushna, but the Ukrainian would not be caught. And Ukraine flags flew proudly as Pidrushna crossed the line. Berger’s challenge faded in the last kilometer, and Vilukhina made it across for second. The Czech Republic was fourth, while the great Domracheva pulled Belarus into fifth. Then Italy, then the USA, then Canada in eighth. Germany, which has never not medaled in this event, finished 11th.