Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic outraced Olympic gold medalist Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia on the finishing stretch Thursday to win the women’s 15-kilometer individual in 47:56 in the first World Cup competition of the season. Third place went to Marie Laure Brunet of France, 16.2 seconds back, with one penalty.
Tiril Eckhoff took the lead early with solid clean prone shooting and stayed near the top for the whole competition, only two standing penalties marred her day. Likewise, Kuzmina shot clean in the first prone stage and quickly took the lead. She then missed two shots in the first standing stage, and fell back near the middle of the pack. However, the Olympic sprint champion cleaned the final two stages and flew around the tracks to claim a temporary spot at the top of the standings. A bit farther back, Gabriela Soukalova was shaping her victory with shooting just as solid as her rivals. The Czech star cleaned the first prone, had a single penalty in the first standing as well as the second prone stage. With a victory within reach, she shot deliberately in the last standing stage and cleaned. She left the stadium 9 seconds behind the speedy Kuzmina. Yet over the next 3K, Soukalova managed to scrape back that time and claim a 1.2 second victory.
Soukalova admitted that the competition was hard for her. “I was hard because my last training was not so famous; I was not very good. I am very satisfied with two penalties—that is nice shooting for me.” That put her expectations quite low. “I did not know what to expect. I treated this like an exam for the second part of the season.” She was not aware until the last loop that she could win. “The coaches told me that I was 9 seconds behind. I did not think I could beat Anastasiya. But our wax man Daniello prepared my skis really good and they were very fast on the last downhill.”
Brune commented on the missed shot, “I never thought about winning. I tried to stay focused. Shooting was difficult because I had a little bit of wind, but I fought hard to hit four.” After missing the final three World Cups last year, due to exhaustion Marie-Laure Brunet was very happy to be back on the podium. “It was like a victory after how last season ended.”