Belarusian Leading Ladies: Dzinara and Hanna
In the four-month drama called the BMW IBU World Cup season, the Belarusian women’s team stepped up like no other, returning to prominence with victories and podiums led by rising stars Dzinara Alimbekava and Hanna Sola. Their fifth place in the IBU Nations Cup was a huge jump from 12th and 11th the two previous seasons. This rekindled memories of the Klaus Siebert days of 2008-2014 when he guided Darya Domracheva and Co. to victories and medals with the team consistently in the Nations Cup top six.
Individual and Relay Success
Alimbekava led the way from day one of the season chalking up a victory, three additional podiums and eleven top ten finishes, sweeping her way to the season ending Blue Bib (under 25) title. Just a few steps behind was Sola who stepped up big time with her IBU World Championships Sprint Bronze medal and strong third and sixth place finishes in Oestersund to close out the season. A solid supporting cast of Olympic Relay Gold medalist Iryna Kryuko and 2020 IBU OECH Pursuit Gold medalist Elena Kruchinkina helped carry their relay team to second place finishes in Oberhof and Nove Mesto na Moravě as well as near-miss fourth place at the IBU World Championships.
Blue Bib Goal
The 25-year-old Alimbekava sported an interesting resume before the season: an IBU YWCH Relay Gold medal, a couple of IBU Cup sprint wins back in 2016, yet only one World Cup top 20 (a clean-shooting 13th at Oestersund 2018), but owned an Olympic Relay Gold medal. Still, she started the year with a single goal, to be the best under 25 woman in biathlon. “I had one aim, to keep this Blue Bib and win it.” That capped what easily could be called a “storybook season.”
Auspicious Start to “storybook season”
The “storybook season” started auspiciously in Kontiolahti, when Alimbekava opened with a personal-best, at the time, eighth in the women’s 15 km individual and then notching pb number two with sixth in the next day’s sprint. By the time she left Kontiolahti, her personal best improved to fourth place garnered in a sterling two-penalty pursuit. The multiple personal bests came from a combination of good skiing but more impressively she closed 90% of her targets, well above of the previous season’s 76%.
World Cup Winner
After Kontiolahti, Alimbekava’s next goal was obvious, a podium place that came quickly. Yet it was not just any podium place; Alimbekava jumped over third and second right to the top spot, setting the biathlon world on its heels in the first Hochfilzen sprint. Along the way, she shot clean as she had done there the previous season in 34th place, only this time, the Belarusian skied faster than everyone including second place Tiril Eckhoff in the last loop for her first BMW IBU World Cup victory. Smiling from ear-to-ear, the newly minted Belarusian star said, “I surprise myself more and more with each competition…I did not think, that after Kontiolahti, I could show something similar and get on the podium for the first time in my career…It is my dream come true.”
Sola’s surprise performance
After Alimbekava’s victory, Sola stepped up with could easily be called the biggest surprise performance of the IBU World Championships. Unlike her teammate, Sola struggled until the February 13 IBU WCH women’s sprint. Going into Pokljuka, her season best was 16th place, with three penalties in the Hochfilzen pursuit. The shooting range was not her friend; over the 12 previous individual competitions, 56 of 200 targets had failed to close. But on a sunny, -10C day with the shooting range flags flat, Sola shot clean, leaving standing in the medal mix. Although Anais Chevalier-Bouchet nipped her for the Silver medal with a faster last loop, Sola claimed the Bronze medal. Reflecting on her many penalty loops in the previous three months, she said, “I was happy to skip the penalty loop. It was the first time this season that I shot clean.” As for the totally unexpected medal, “I probably have not realized yet that I won this medal, but I have been preparing for this medal from the beginning of the season.”
Shooting Well in relays
That medal kickstarted a strong finish to the season for the Belarusian duo and their relay team. Earlier in the year, the foursome of Kryuko, Alimbekava, Sola and Kruchinkina ended a several season podium drought with second place in Oberhof. That day Alimbekava said, “We are a young team wanted to achieve this result for a long time. Our girls are very strong, but we never managed to shoot well. Today… we didn't have many missed shots and are delighted to show where we are at the moment.” They came to the IBU WCH as a medal contenders, but finished fourth, missing the podium by 20 seconds, again shooting well with just eight spare rounds. Yet just a dozen days later, they were back on the podium, again finishing second less than two seconds behind Sweden after a thrilling last loop battle.
Confidence and Motivation
Alimbekava’s comments explained what led to their individual and group success this season. “We trained really well in the summer, increasing our speed and shooting (skill). We had good relays before this one; are confident in ourselves. that we can do our job well…All of the girls were motivated after I had good results at the beginning of the season. They know that we all can have good results and we aim for that in every competition.”
Oestersund was the icing on the cake for this up and coming group of ladies. Alimbekava and Sola finished 11th and 13th in the sprint, with Sola grabbing her second-ever podium with third in the pursuit. Expectedly happy but tired she admitted, “In my mind I am already at home and in my mind have been there for the last weeks. But I will focus and try to show my best result in the last competition.”
Sola put everything into that last mass start of the season, going into the last standing stage with a 25-second lead but four penalty loops dropped her to sixth place. Alimbekava, after three penalties left for the final loop with a 2.5 second lead, but held on to finish second behind Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold.
“This season…was awesome”
When the lights went out in Oestersund, the two had plenty to smile about: second and sixth in the season’s final competition, seventh and twenty-third in the World Cup Total Score respectively and that fifth place in the Nations Cup. The Blue Bib winner summed up, “This season…was awesome for me. Before the season, I could not even dream about how it turned out. It is hard to express my emotions but I am simply super happy.”
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni