Why was Selina Gasparin sobbing as her teammate Irene Cadurisch crossed the finish line in today’s 4 x 5 k World Cup biathlon relay in Ruhpolding, Germany?
It was a day this Gasparin had been waiting for for years. Gasparin is a trailblazer for Swiss women in a sport that has long been seen as for men only in this small, traditional country. As a girl she organized her own competitions and training, then became the first Swiss woman to compete in World Cup races, and then in the Olympics. At age 29, she won the first two World Cups of her career – the first for any Swiss biathlete, man or woman. She’s having a great season.
Being so young, women’s biathlon in Switzerland isn’t particularly deep. But Selina Gasparin spread the love of the sport within her family, and her sisters Elisa (22 years old) and Aita (19 years old) are also now competing on the World Cup. Last season they skied together on a relay team for the first time.
(Reportedly, Aita began biathlon at age 14, and her mother almost didn’t let her because she felt it was inappropriate for a girl to keep a firearm in her living space.)
As three of the best biathletes in Switzerland, it seems from outside that it’s a given they would travel to Sochi together to fill the country’s four quota spots at the Olympics for women’s biathlon. However, Swiss Ski, the governing body for snow sports including biathlon, has strict rules about who can represent the country – they don’t want participation, they want honor and glory. There are multiple ways to qualify, but this season, for instance, athletes need one top-15 or two top-25′s on the World Cup.
Elisa Gasparin, the middle sister, has also fulfilled these requirements and will join Selina. Aita, though, has not – nor has anyone else. It looked as if there wouldn’t be four women to make a relay team in Sochi.
Today in Ruhpolding, however, that changed. A relay team can also qualify even if all of its members don’t do so individually, by getting a top 10 performance in a World Cup competition this season.
During the oldest Gasparin’s career, often there hasn’t even been a relay on the World Cup. Over all the years since she began competing, this is only the eighth time Switzerland has lined up four women together. The previous best finish was 13th.
Elisa Gasparin started things out with only one spare round to tag off in 12th, just 25 seconds from the lead. Selina Gasparin used two spare rounds in prone, but nonetheless managed to catch the leaders: she was one of four women who came into the second exchange within a second of each other. Aita Gasparin shot perfectly to hang on to seventh place, and then Cadurisch tested their nerves by using all three spare rounds in both of her shooting stages.
In the end, though, she still crossed the line in 10th, 17 seconds ahead of the next finisher.
So Switzerland may have been three minutes behind the winning Russians, but those tears were tears of joy. The three Gasparin sisters, along with Cadurisch, are going to the Olympics together, the first Swiss women’s relay team to ever qualify for a Games, and almost certainly one of the only relay teams in any sport that contains three sisters.