Five Leading Ladies: Kaisa, Nastya, Doro, Laura and Dasha
The five leading ladies going into Pyeongchang are much closer matched than the men where there is Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Boe almost in a league of their own and then everyone else. Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Anastasiya Kuzmina, Dorothea Wierer, Laura Dahlmeier and Darya Domracheva are fairly close together in the World Cup Total Score and any one of them could easily win several medals next month.
Three of the five own Olympic medals and two are still aiming for that first taste of Olympic Winter Games glory. Domracheva leads the pack with her three Golds in Sochi and a Bronze from Vancouver, yet Kuzmina is not far behind with 2010 and 2014 Olympic Sprint Golds and a 2010 Pursuit Silver. Wierer has a Mixed Relay Bronze from Sochi. Mäkäräinen with two OWG on her resume and Dahlmeier who competed in Sochi are both in the hunt for their first medals.
Kaisa at the Top
Kaisa Mäkäräinen leads the World Cup Total Score heading into the OWG. Being at the top of the list is nothing new for the Finn; she won the Total Score title in the 2010-11 and 2013-14 seasons. Her season so far has been simply consistent: tem times in the top 10, with a victory, three second places and one third. Her only blip was the three-penalty 26th place in the Antholz sprint; she came back with a vengeance for 5th and 3rd with superb skiing in the following pursuit and mass start. Those two competitions were classic Kaisa; a few extra penalties but fantastically fast skiing to earn a spot on the podium or flower ceremony.
Mäkäräinen had a great January, never out of the top five; a perfect setup for Korea. Having just turned 35, these OWG will be her best and probably last chance for a medal. She has won medals in the past three IBU WCH, one in the 15K, and two in the mass start; her only WCH title came in the 2011 pursuit. That is truly the competition that has defined Mäkäräinen’s career, with 29 career podiums including 10 wins. She also has 24 sprint podiums, but only seven victories; the mass start and individual account for 12 and seven podiums respectively. The sprint/pursuit in Pyeongchang are most likely her best chances for a medal. In those competitions, the Flying Finn can use her speed to run down the penalties. Of course, should she shoot above her 85% average, Mäkäräinen’s medal chances rise accordingly.
“I Would Like to Have One of Those Medals”
This past summer, the veteran biathlete talked about the Olympic season and that elusive medal. “I do not see the Olympic season as much different. Everyone does all of the World Cups and the Olympics are the Championship part of that. Of course, I would like to have one of those medals! Everyone says that! I try to think of that as not life-changing, because that makes me feel a little more relaxed. I saw in Sochi that my life did not change, even when I did not get a medal there.” However, no doubt, there will be a huge smile if she does fill that empty spot in her trophy case with medal engraved with the Olympic rings.
Focus on the Double Olympic Sprint Champion
Kuzmina is having the best year of her career overall, although it is hard to not say that 2010 and 2014 when she won her Olympic Gold medals were also career-bests. So far, she was in the Yellow bib for several weeks, and has four victories and two second places. All of these are personal highs. For a woman who basically has not competed since the end of the 2014 season that she closed with two wins in Oslo; this is an extraordinary feat. Then, it must be said that the Slovakian is a special talent. No woman has ever defended an Olympic Sprint title as she did in 2014. She is stronger than many men on the tracks, full of both power and speed. She never was or claims to be the best shot in biathlon. Yet in the most important and high stress situations, she has that ability “to put it together,” i.e., shooting clean in Sochi with the Gold medal on the line. This season, in both the Hochfilzen and Oberhof pursuits, she showed a new maturity and approach to standing shooting. She was patient, not just going for it in the final stages…and won. The Oberhof win by over one minute was simply brilliant.
Third Sprint Gold Medal
The 33-year-old looks like she could win that third Sprint Gold and possibly more in Pyeongchang. She suffered with some fatigue in mid-January after the Le Grand Bornand string of three wins, second and fourth places. However, she looked strong and powerful in her second place in the Antholz mass start. The shooting was a bit off, but she was in control on the tracks. If she comes to Korea relaxed and as fit as in early January, she will add another chapter to the history books.
Doro, a Strong January
Dorothea Wierer, third in the Total Score, like Mäkäräinen, had a very nice January. Although she struggled in the mass start in Ruhpolding, finishing 20th, the rest of her month showed a very positive trend. After struggling with illness and less-than-perfect shooting in December, Wierer returned after the Christmas break, healthy and ready. Her clean-shooting pursuit second place was a sign of things to come. Ruhpolding saw her first victory of the season, going 20-for-20 in the 15K individual. She added another second place with a strong 10-for-10 in the relay and then second in the pursuit and two seventh places in Antholz. Her performances on the tracks and shooting range improved all month, a positive sign as February’s big show approaches.
Looking for More Medals
The Italian already owns an Olympic medal, Bronze in the Sochi mixed relay, but no doubt she wants more than that one on her resume. She seems to be back close to the same level as in her best season, 2015-16, so that is a positive. Generally, the always-happy lady’s strength lies in her shooting; when she is on, fast and accurate. On the tracks, she does not have the speed to match Kuzmina or Mäkäräinen, but the Italian does gain seconds with her speedy range procedure. Like Mäkäräinen, her best competition has generally been the pursuit; of her 20 career individual podiums, 11 have been in the pursuit. Of course this year, her only win is in the 15K individual. A medal in either of these four-stage competitions is a real possibility. In addition, Italy again has a strong mixed relay that could easily be on the podium. At the same time, their women’s relay is always a podium contender. If Wierer has a February even close to her January, she will return home with more medals.
Dahlmeier, a Slow Start
Last season, Laura Dahlmeier won everything: World Cup Total Score, five IBU WCH Gold medals and one Silver medal. She stood atop the podium in 10 individual competitions. This season, she started a little slower, skipping Östersund, due to illness, opening rather conservatively in Hochfilzen. Three podiums and her first win in Le Grand Bornand were more like the Dahlmeier of last season. Another light illness and another restart in Oberhof were less than pleasing, 13th in the sprint and 7th in the pursuit. Picking up with the Ruhpolding relay to the end of the month, the German star was back: a win, two seconds and fifth in the last four individual competitions, the Ruhpolding relay win. In the four individual competitions, she hit 65 of 70 shots, while showing improving speed on the tracks.
Health and Medals
The now only 24-year-old has all of the tools to win it all in Pyeongchang, as she did in Hochfilzen. However, it seems like she is not quite at the same level, with the small setbacks so far. On her best days, she shoots with authority and controls the tracks. The real key to her medal chances is simple: remain healthy. If healthy, she will win medals. Sprint and pursuit are her strengths, along with of course the almost dominant women’s relay and potentially in the mixed relay. The big question will remain until the sprint on February 10: will the 2016-17 Laura or the early 2017-18 Laura be on the starting line. That will be the difference between Gold, Silver, Bronze or no medals.
Dasha, Triple Gold Medalist
Sochi Triple Gold Medalist Darya Domracheva is just fifth in the World Cup Total Score. However she missed the Östersund sprint/pursuit and skipped le Grand Bornand to train. Despite this, she ended January on the highest of notes, winning the final competition before Pyeongchang, the Antholz mass start with one of her classic comebacks. This was probably as good of a stage-setter as anyone save Martin Fourcade, who also asserted himself with a matching Antholz win. Domracheva admitted that she was progressing “step-by-step,” and obviously ended January on the top step.
Strength and Good Shooting
After missing a full season and a half with mononucleosis and then pregnancy, she returned last year to win a WCH Pursuit Silver medal. Her fifth in the Total Score is a bit misleading, since she was not in five events. Since Östersund, her worst result is seventh in the Oberhof sprint, with two victories and two third places also in that span. It is obvious that star from the Sochi OWG is on track for more good results. Although Domracheva only shot clean once so far this season, she is shooting at a career-high 88% clip, being especially effective in prone at 92%. On the tracks, she has not completely shown the speed of several years ago, but she remains very strong and gives every ounce of energy on the tracks. Earlier this summer, her veteran coach Alfred Eder commented, “Dasha is the strongest women that I have ever seen in biathlon.”
Good Indicator: Never-Say-Die Attitude
The Antholz mass start is a fairly good indicator of the Darya Domracheva that will show up in Pyeongchang to defend her three Olympic titles. She will have solid, steady shooting with few unnecessary penalties; skiing will be measured and probably faster than what she has shown to date. The most important thing that showed up in Antholz was that ability to come back from impossible situations, the never-say-die attitude, and taking advantage of other’s mistakes. Those things and her momentum to date will take the Belarusian a long way towards the podium. The chance of Domracheva winning multiple medals, some Gold is very high.
These five women are most likely to make the big headline at the 2018 OWG. However, winning medals at these quadrennial Games is a huge mountain to climb; some will excel, some will fail and others will achieve way above their expectations. Stay tuned…