By Harald Zimmer
Three German biathletes swept the podium in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) 2016 Open European Championships, which are held this week in Tyumen, Russia.
That in itself would be a great result for the team, but not extremely unusual. It even happened this season at the IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria.
What made Thursday’s race more special: gold medalist Nadine Horchler and silver medalist Karolin Horchler are sisters. And for the older Nadine, it was her biggest success at age 29, being rewarded for years of racing on the IBU Cup level after her biathlon career had stagnated.
At first, the 26-year-old Karolin had set the best time in the finish thanks to two clean shootings and a good course time that ultimately would be the sixth-best overall.
Then her older sister bested that time by 12.7 seconds, despite a penalty lap in the standing shooting and coming back on the course in second place, 1.7 seconds behind. But after a fast last loop Nadine crossed the finish line first to get the gold medal in a time of 21:53 minutes.
Starting late in the field with bib 62 and only two more athletes behind her, 22-year-old Annika Knoll shot clean and completed the German sweep (+28.5) with her first podium of the season. Knoll consistently lost time on the final loop after leaving the range just 2.4 seconds behind Karolin, but in the finish was narrowly ahead of Russia’s Anna Sherbinina (+32.0, with one penalty) and relegated her to fourth place.
“I knew I was second after the last shooting, but I felt really good on the track today, so I hoped to win,” Horchler said after her victory, according to an IBU press release. “I knew I was battling with my sister and it was a hard fight on the last loop. I am so happy about the podium; it is so cool to be there not only with Karolin, but also with Annika.”
“What a crazy day,” her sister Karoline posted on her Facebook page. “That was a great competition and the three of us can be all the happier together. THANKS and congratulations to the whole team.”
For Nadine, it was not only the biggest individual achievement of her career, after three bronze medals at European Championships in 2011 and 2012. A special kind of redemption for the biathlete was also that she won with the best course time (by almost 25 seconds over Russian Anastasia Zagoruiko, who finished 7th with two penalties). As was beating her younger sister in an important race.
At 29, Nadine had only been nominated once for Germany’s World Championships team in 2013 (where she achieved a 28th place in the individual competition, and only an 84th place in the sprint), and in the last three seasons, she had failed to make the World Cup team, only being called up sporadically.
According to her national team coaches, she was too slow on the courses and thus had to rely too heavily on flawless shooting performances to score World Cup points, much less get close to the podium. Her 1- best World Cup results all came during the 2012/2013 season, highlighted by a fifth place in the sprint and the following pursuit as well as a first place in the relay, all in a single week in Antholz, Italy. Then her career hit a standstill, and younger athletes including her own sister passed her by.
In 2014, doctors had diagnosed Nadine with “overtraining,” eager to qualify for the Sochi Olympics, which did not work out. She fell into “a deep dark hole,” as she later told a German newspaper in March 2015. “I could not focus anymore. It would have been easier for my head if somebody had found a virus or some kind of infection.”
But despite losing her “cadre” status which meant she had to compete as a self-funded athlete, she did not give up her biathlon career, and continued to race in the second-tier IBU Cup, where she finished third overall in the 2013/2014 season, and later second overall in the 2014-15 season.
“I sit here [at home] and have to watch the empty starting spot on TV. Sad but true as the leading woman in the IBU total score,” Nadine wrote on her Facebook page in March 2014, when a quota starting position at a World Cup in Pokljuka, Slovenia, was left unfilled by her national team coaches.
Many German news outlets immediately picked up her statement creating a bit of a media storm, as fellow former World Cup biathlete Kathrin Lang (formerly Hitzer) had also severely criticized the coaches calling their behavior “cowardly,” and the women’s team without Horchler and Lang had largely disappointed during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
“There surely will be a reboot, for which younger athletes will be preferred,” former German head coach Uwe Müssiggang told press agency SID back then.
Two coaches responsible for Germany’s women’s biathlon team got replaced after the 2013/2014 season, but that did not immediately help Horchler’s career either as other younger athletes surpassed her, spending another season in the IBU Cup.
For the current 2015/2016 season, she again tried to be on the World Cup team, but once more did not make the cut and was assigned to the IBU Cup, while her sister Karolin was picked for the World Cup team receiving starts in Östersund (Sweden), Ruhpolding (Germany, only for the relay), Antholz (Italy), Canmore (Canada, with a ninth place in the sprint as her best individual World Cup result), and Presque Isle (USA).
While Nadine Horchler most likely will not be a member of Germany’s team for the upcoming World Championships in Oslo regardless of her results this week in Tyumen (and probably neither will Karolin Horchler nor Annika Knoll), at least she can leave Russia with a big personal victory.
With her sprint win, Nadine has now also taken the lead in this season’s IBU Cup total score standings, moving up from fourth place before the European Championships which count for the IBU Cup.
Horchler has left open if she plans to continue her biathlon career beyond this season, after also completing an education towards a future career as a nonmedical practitioner for psychotherapy.
Veterans Garanichev and L’Abée-Lund Prevail in Men’s Sprint
In the men’s 10-kilometer sprint later on Thursday, the presumed favorite Evgeniy Garanichev, currently in eighth place in the overall IBU World Cup as the highest-ranked athlete among those competing in Tyumen and an Olympic bronze medalist in 2014, did not disappoint the expectations of his home crowd in the “Pearl of Siberia” biathlon arena.
Despite one penalty in his standing shooting stage, he claimed the gold medal in a time of 23:40.3 minutes thanks to his fast skiing with the best course time, ahead of three athletes who shot clean. A day before, Garanichev (age 28) had already anchored Russia to a win in the mixed relay.
“It is a double happiness for me to score the second win here, at the home stadium,” Garanichev said according to an IBU press release. “Today I managed to work good in the competition; yes, I had one penalty, but on the track I felt really strong.”
Regarding the upcoming World Championships in Olso, Norway, Garanichev added: “I’ve never had the competitive practices before the World Championships. Probably it is a small experiment and we will see how it works out. I will stay in Tyumen until February 29 [the day after the final competition] and then will go to Moscow where I meet my team.”
Coming into the finish a few minutes later, Norwegian veteran Henrik L’Abée-Lund, 29, secured the silver medal after losing some ground on the final loop but never taking the lead (+5.2 seconds, with no penalties), pushing Russia’s 24-year-old Anton Babikov to the bronze medal position (+9.7, with no penalties).
“I have never been in Tyumen,” L’Abée-Lund said, according to a translation of a press release by the event organizers. “It is a delightful [biathlon] complex. And the crowd here – just great.”
“I am happy with how I managed to shoot clean in the race,” Babikov said in the press release. “It was exciting to wait for the rest in the finish. I am very glad to be on the podium.”
Similar to Garanichev, Babikov already had won a gold medal with his partner Victoria Slivko in the single mixed relay a day before.
For L’Abée-Lund it was also the second medal in Tyumen after a bronze for Norway in the mixed relay. And it was his second gold medal at European Championships, after a victory with the men’s relay in 2009 in Ufa, Russia. He also won a gold medal with the Norwegian men’s relay at the 2013 World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
Germany’s Florian Graf came out of the sprint competition empty-handed, 19.6 seconds back in fourth place. He had started the race early in bib 4, and held the top position as 35 other athletes finished the race, until the two Russians and finally the Norwegian bested his time to push him off the podium.
Already in the mixed relay a day before, Graf had missed a very good chance at a medal by shooting three penalty laps as the anchor leg for his team with the two Horchler sisters and Matthias Bischl. In the sprint he redeemed his shooting performance with two clean stages, but in the end – especially on the first loop where he only recorded the 24th best time – he just was not fast enough on the course to get on the podium.
His teammate Bischl placed sixth in the sprint (+37.9, with no penalty), also missing a medal again.
Still, Graf was encouraged by his improved performance:
“I am totally happy about my 4th place today in sprint at the European Championships,” he later wrote on his Facebook page. “The result gave me self-confidence again after it yesterday unfortunately did not work out as I and my teammates had wished for. I am looking forward to the next race! Thanks for your support and the words of encouragement.”
Races at the Open European Championships in Tyumen continue on Saturday with pursuits for the women and men where the times back from the sprint will carry over, and conclude with mass starts on Sunday. Races as well as full replays and shorter recaps can be streamed live on http://www.eurovisionsports.tv/ibu/