Crystal Clear at the Season’s End… Kaisa and Martin on Top (Part 3)
When the stadium lights in Tyumen dimmed for the last time on March 25, one thing was crystal clear: Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Martin Fourcade had won the 2017-18 IBU World Cup Total Score titles and were in possession of the big Crystal Globes.
This third of three articles, focuses on Mäkäräinen’s comeback in the closing days of last season in her title run plus the small Globe wins by Anastasiya Kuzmina and Nadezhda Skardino.
Mäkäräinen has always been a fighter, even after the most discouraging days, able to pick herself up and prepare for the next battle. This year was a testament to her talent and resilience: in and out of Yellow, missing Olympic medals, one day seemingly destined for second place and then grabbing the glittering Crystal prize in the final 32 minutes and 44 seconds of the season!
Kaisa’s Comeback Nets World Cup Total Score Title Number Three
Mäkäräinen’s end of season comeback to claim her third big Crystal Globe was a nail biter. Before the gun fired in the mass start, the Globe’s new home was up in the air. This was a duel/shootout for the biggest prize of the BMW IBU World Cup season; a one place difference would decide where the trophy would land. After the first standing stage, Mäkäräinen and Kuzmina were 8th and 9th. In the deciding final standing, Mäkäräinen cleaned while Kuzmina went to the penalty loop. The Finn skied a hugely fast last loop and crossed the finish line in sixth place, while Kuzmina finished 11th. 19 seconds and 3 points separated the two when the dust settled. Only two times, dating back to the 2008-09 season has the end result been so close with Mäkäräinen ironically winning by 4 points over Tora Berger in 2013-14, while Helena Ekholm and Kati Wilhelm tied at 952 points each in 08-09, with Ekholm claiming the title.
Shock and Finish Line Confusion
Still somewhat in shock that day after the win, Mäkäräinen while clutching the Crystal Globe tightly, said, “It has been an amazing last week. When we left Oslo, I was so disappointed and quite sure that there was nothing I could do this week (to win the Crystal Globe). But then the week started well and today it was all about the last loop. I was so confused when I came to the finish. I had no idea which place I got or which Anastasiya got or who won the race; so many open questions…”
Short Stint in Yellow
Besides claiming the seasonal top spot, Mäkäräinen’s last loop gave her the World Cup Mass Start title and her fifth small Globe, a fitting ending to long season of struggle. The season started rather inauspiciously for her, with 11th, 6th, and 7th place in the season’s opening week. Justine Braisaz was in Yellow until second place in the Hochfilzen pursuit propelled Mäkäräinen into Yellow. However, it only lasted for two competitions; Kuzmina with a 1st, 2nd and a 4th at Le Grand Bornand took the Bib home for Christmas.
Birthday Week Magic
Then the annual Kaisa’s birthday week in Ruhpolding magic turned the tables: 2nd in the 15K individual on her 35th birthday, followed by a mass start win that moved the Yellow Bib into her hands, by 19 points. After three more competitions, the lead remained laser thin; 15 points heading into the OWG break from the World Cup schedule.
Return to Battle
Returning to the Crystal Battle at home in Kontiolahti, Mäkäräinen spent the week under the huge cloud of pressure, expectations, and OWG disappointment (no medals and 10th in the mass start as the highlight), competing at home and wearing Yellow. Yet she held up quite well; no podiums but 10th in the sprint and a sterling 4th in the mass start, after an all-out last loop. Kuzmina still her closest pursuer in the World Cup Total Score, missed 10 of 30 shots that week in the sprint/mass start, finishing 30th and 16th respectively. The WCTS lead was 53 points.
Seizing the Bib Again
40th in the Oslo sprint was enough for Kuzmina to seize the Bib once again. That was followed by 22nd in the pursuit; Kuzmina had a 41 point lead. Tyumen would be the deciding factor. Mäkäräinen again rallied; her 2nd in the sprint while Kuzmina dealt with the home stadium expectations closed the gap to 16 points. Then a pursuit win moved the Yellow Bib onto the blonde Finn’s back. Once again, her lead was razor thin, four points. She commented, about the mass start showdown. “It is not important who is wearing Yellow on the start; it is more important who is wearing it after the finish line!”
The rest is history: sixth in the mass start, sealing the World Cup Total Score and the World Cup Mass Start titles. She went from virtually no hope to title number three; sixth place in career start number 377 brought Kaisa Mäkäräinen back to the top of the biathlon world, at the age of 35, making her the oldest woman to claim the big Crystal Globe.
Two Globes in Kuzmina’s Shining Season
Although Kuzmina lost the final battle for the big Crystal Globe, her season was a thing of beauty, the best-ever by far in a career that dates back to the 2002 IBU YJWCH in Ridnaun. She was extremely disappointed, commenting on social media, “I lost the main battle for the big Globe. I had it in my reach. I fought for it, but cracked and as they say, only one person wins. I am sad and very sorry; I have never been so close…”
Second in the World Cup Total Score tops her previous best of 6th in the 2013-14 season. The Slovak star had a career high, five World Cup wins. However the crowning glory this season was a Gold medal (mass start) in her third consecutive Olympic Winter Games; no female biathlete has ever done that previously. Then there were two more OWG Silver medals in the 15K individual and pursuit. Capping off his list of highlights is the two small Crystal Globes in the sprint and pursuit, the first in her career.
Kuzmina’s sprint season was a reflection of her year: she was either brilliant or well off the mark. She won three of the eight competitions and was second once; in the other four she finished 15th, 18th, 30th and 12th. She was 37-of-40 at the shooting range in the four podiums while in the other four non-podiums; she missed 12 of the 40 shots. Even with the 12th place finish in Tyumen to close the season, she held on for the sprint title with 323 points to Darya Domracheva’s 313. With that first piece of crystal in her hands, Kuzmina said, “Not my best sprint; but, however my first globe in my hands…So hard and so great!”
Hochfilzen, Setting the Stage for Pursuit Crystal
The pursuits were actually much better than the sprints, with two first and two second places, a sixth, an eleventh and a forgettable 36th that opened the season. The first win in Hochfilzen, her first since Oslo 2014, set the stage for the rest of the season. Kuzmina has always struggled with shooting while her skiing has always been impeccable. In Hochfilzen, she went 10-for-10 in standing despite struggling for the shots. Still, it showed that perfection was possible; important for her confidence. She commented, “it was not easy for me, especially on the shooting range; I could not catch my breath…I just tried to stay positive. I took a long time on the last shooting, but finally it was good.” She never matched that 19-for-20 day the rest of the season, but there was a certain podium confidence from that point on. The blazing skis carried the day from then on and opened the road to Kuzmina’s World Cup Pursuit title and small globe number 2.
No crying over spilled milk for Anastasiya Kuzmina: victories, crystal and medals rained down on her, closing another shining chapter in her remarkable career.
Sharpshooting Skardino Claims Crystal Number One
Nadezhda Skardino, like Kuzmina left Tyumen with the first small Crystal Globe of her career, taking the World Cup Individual title. In some ways, Skardino is the perfect person to win this classic competition which is actually a shooting match with some skiing thrown in. The Belarusian sharpshooter closed 93% of her targets this past season, a career high for a lady that hit 90% last season and 92% the year before. In the two 15K individuals this season, all 40 of her shots made the target go white.
First Victory for Mom
Yet the small Crystal Globe was just the icing on the cake for this always-smiling biathlete’s season. Skardino opened the 2017-18 season with her first-ever World Cup victory in 288 World Cup starts, clean shooting, and very tight 2.9 second win.
She credited Coach Alfred Eder, while sharing the win as a birthday present for her mother “I would give myself an A+ for today's performance…Alfred came back to the team and his training suits me…It's been a while since I spent that day with (my mother)…I hope she feels that I was with her…this is a present to her."
Olympic Gold for Ms. Consistency
From that point, Skardino was simply the female Ms. Consistency, never back on the podium but shooting well and in the points every time she started, save once. That gave her 18th in the World Cup Total Score, a spot she knows well, having been 18th, 19th, 18th, 17th, and 18th in the previous five seasons, consistency defined.
A couple of weeks before receiving that first piece of Crystal, Nadezhda Skardino added a third career highlight. It was a shiny Olympic Relay Gold medal that fit nicely next to her other Olympic medal, a Sochi Bronze in: surprise, surprise…the 15K individual, where of course, she shot clean.
With the season over, one thing remains crystal clear. Every Crystal Globe winner ended the season with a smile, but no doubt, Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Martin Fourcade had the biggest smiles of all!
After a season of battles, ups and downs, Mäkäräinen’s Tyumen comment is what the whole 4+ month season is all about, “It is not important who is wearing Yellow on the start; it is more important who is wearing it after the finish line!”