Top Women’s Teams: Germany, France and Ukraine
The German, French and Ukrainian Women’s teams will be relying on a mixture of established stars, Olympic veterans and new comers to drive their quest for medals in the coming weeks at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games.
Each team has an athlete or two that will be the key to both individual and relay success. Laura Dahlmeier, Denise Herrmann, Justine Braisaz, Marie Dorin Habert and the Semerenko twins are the big names that will probably figure in many a podium battle in Korea.
Big Hopes Rest on Laura
Dahlmeier carries the biggest burden for the German women’s team: the pressure to bring home a whole armload of medals as she did last year at the IBU World Championships. Although she had a slow start to her season, Dahlmeier has been on the podium in seven of the last nine competitions, with two wins. A final stage penalty in the last one, the Antholz mass start is all that kept her from an eighth podium. 90% shooting in the three Antholz competitions is pretty much on par with her season average. Last year’s “Queen of Hochfilzen” generally improved her ski speed as January progressed, but still does not seen to have that dominating track prowess of last season. Yet she does have one big advantage, last year’s World Cup Total Score winner is one tough competitive lady; fears no one and at the same time her rivals have great respect for the German’s talent. The sprint/pursuit combo remains her strong point, so the opening weekend should be the litmus test for Dahlmeier. Two wins or medals and look for her on the podium in the rest; missing the podium might mean a not-so-pleasant stay in Korea. Regardless, she is the key woman in a potential mixed relay medal; on anchor duty in the women’s relay, the German’s can pretty much count on at least one Gold medal.
Denise and the Magic Skis
Denise Herrmann, the cross-country Olympic medalist now second-year biathlete could make Dahlmeier last year’s news. Although she has cooled down from those two giddy wins in Östersund, Herrmann can reverse the trend and end up on the podium when she hits eight or nine targets in the sprint and pursuit or in any other competition. Of course, that is a tall order, because her shooting is erratic and rather slow for the top ranks. Yet she possesses something magical, ski speed and the ability to gobble up meters and seconds in a flash. If she suddenly has an Östersund déjà vu, individual Olympic medal(s) will be no surprise. A good sprint/pursuit will secure a place on the relay team.
Franziska, Vanessa and…
Three of the four supporting cast of Franziska Hildebrand, Vanessa Hinz and Maren Hammerschmidt and Franziska Preuss have been on the podium in their careers. Only Hinz lacks an individual podium. However only Hildebrand (4th Oberhof sprint) and Hammerschmidt (5th Östersund pursuit, 6th Antholz mass start) have been close this season. Hildebrand just does not seem to have the ski speed and Hammerschmidt’s shooting has been inconsistent. Yet all of these ladies are crucial to the relay team medal hopes; none are bad choices and any combination will bring a medal for Germany.
Bottom line: the biggest individual medal hopes and potential lie in Dahlmeier and Herrmann. Only some kind of disaster will stop the German women from a relay medal; probably Gold.
Justine and the French Veterans
Justine Braisaz thrust herself into the limelight with her first career World Cup win in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the home stadium crowd at le Grand Bornand. That win plus her early season clean shooting in Östersund shows her podium potential. A mid-January illness set her back, but an individual medal in Pyeongchang is a possibility.
Anais and Anais
Just a notch behind Braisaz in the World Cup Total Score in 9th is the veteran Anais Bescond. She seems to be peaking at the right time with a clean-shooting 5th in the Antholz sprint and 8th in the pursuit; all a week after 8th in the 15K at Ruhpolding. Bescond is at her best when shooting well; she is a grinder on the tracks and the woman who could surprise in the Olympic 15K individual; she placed 5th in the Sochi the 15K and sprint.
Anais Chevalier is not the same athlete of a year ago when she had a win and four other podiums. Chevalier missed a huge training block after being hit by a car while cycling in the spring. However, she has had two promising 6th and 9th places in mass starts this season. The couple of training weeks since Antholz should work in her favor and put her closer to her best shape.
Marie and Relay Pride
Marie Dorin Habert was expected to lead the French women this season after three seasons that included three individual IBU World Championships and twelve IBU WCH medals. Yet some injuries set her back and her season start was far from perfect; no podiums or even top tens. Dorin Habert’s shooting was about her normal, at 86% but her skiing was just off and she knew it, frequently commenting that she felt just plain bad. Yet some rest in January produced two promising results at Antholz: clean-shooting 17th in the sprint and three-penalty 13th in the mass start. If the upward trend continues into Pyeongchang, this lady with the Championship pedigree and two Olympic medals in her trophy case just might add another.
It will be tough for the French women to take any individual medals, but the Fourcade-led mixed relay has a big upside as does the women’s relay. The French take great pride in their relays (two Silver and a Bronze in the last 3 IBU WCH, 2010 Olympic Silver and 2006 Olympic Bronze); they would be quite happy to match their Hochfilzen Bronze medal this year.
Ukraine: Semerenkos and “The Relay”
Ukraine is the defending champion in the Olympic Women’s Relay. The whole Sochi squad is in Pyeongchang. Although individual medals are a real possibility, their focus is surely squarely set on the February 22 relay.
The Semerenko twins are very important pieces of Ukraine’s potential success. Vita has come roaring back after missing virtually the last three seasons (except for a token qualifying IBU Cup appearance last season). Illness and childbirth has taken nothing way from her: two podiums and three clean shooting days show she is prepared for the relay and possibly to defend her sprint Bronze medal from Sochi. Sister Valja is shooting at a 93% clip with 4th and 5th in the two 15K individuals this season. They make up the heart of the relay team and have solid individual credentials.
Juliya Dzhyma, Pidhrushna and the Olympic Rookies
Dzhyma has cooled since her two third places in Östersund, but is shooting at her career average of 87%. She is less likely to grab an individual medal but holds a relay slot. Olena Pidhrushna anchored the Olympic Gold medal team in 2014, yet so far this season, other than the 2nd place relay in Hochfilzen, she is not on that form. This former sprint World Champion and World Cup winner will have to step up in order to get a start and hold on to hold her relay spot.
Irina Varvynets, the fast-shooting sharpshooter raised her stock with Gold/Silver in the recent IBU OECH sprint/pursuit at Ridnaun. She hit 48-of-50 shots in the sprint, pursuit and individual there. Although an Olympic rookie, she could be in line for a relay spot.
Last year, Anastasiya Merkushyna was the revelation, filling in a relay spot and taking an IBU WCH Silver medal. So far this season, her highlight was 12th in the Ruhpolding mass start; still with great potential, the 23-year-old is probably the odd woman out for Ukraine.
Ukraine prognosis: a Semerenko individual medal and in the mix for the relay podium.
Of these three teams, Germany is the “big dog,” with Dahlmeier in line for a good deal of glory and a relay team that should take home the Gold medal. France and Ukraine will scrap for an individual medal and both will be chasing in the relay.