Biathlon skiers welcomed the clear skies stretched above the Tsalteshi Trails during Thursday afternoon’s races, after they faced blizzard-like conditions on Tuesday. But skiers still had to contend with Team Yamal, a small team of Russian skiers that has so far taken the Arctic Winter Games’ ski biathlon by storm.
Team Yamal has just four team members, but in the 7.5 kilometer sprint, the first of the ski biathlon events this week, their two female skiers took the gold and silver, and two male skiers took the gold and bronze.
“The Russians have very different tactics,” said 16-year-old, Taylor Karnikis, who is from Kasilof and on Team Alaska. “Everything’s a little bit cleaner and faster ... I sort of wish I were watching them instead of competing against them.”
Karnikis came in fourth Tuesday, behind Team Yamal’s 17-year-old Salavat Sufyanov.
Some biathlon skiers attributed the Yamal Team’s speed to intense practice.
“The Russian team is really, really prepared,” said Team Alaska’s 17-year-old Olivia Karns from Fairbanks. “They’re like machine guns. They come in and they shoot everything.”
Many skiers, including Karns and Karnikis, said they heard Team Yamal biathlon skiers had trained at a special academy or ski school in Russia.
“They just seem to be really focused and seem to train hard,” said 16-year-old Mathew Velders of Team Alberta North. “Russia’s really, really fast.”
On Tuesday, Team Yamal’s 15-year-old Yulia Dorokhova won the gold and finished the race in 35 minutes, 34 seconds four minutes and five seconds faster than the next fastest finish by another team. And Team Yamal’s 14-year-old Roman Pyavka won the gold and finished the race in 30 minutes and 43 seconds three minutes faster than the next fastest finish by another team.
When Team Yamal’s biathlon skiers were asked for an interview before the races on Thursday, they declined, saying it would break their concentration.
But some of the other team’s biathlon skiers shared their tactics.
“Before you get into the range you have to forget about skiing, focus on your breathing, calm down and put all of your attention into shooting,” Velders said.
He said he felt good about his prospects for Thursday’s races and that the conditions for skiing were good.
“As long as it doesn’t get warmer than the wax on my skis,” he said.
Other skiers also were pleased with the weather after the snow-blinding conditions they had to ski and aim at targets through on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, skiers struggled to see through snow and with their ice-covered rifles.
“Sometimes it takes three to four minutes to clear your sights,” said 17-year-old Jeremiah Kitchen of Team Yukon. “Sometimes you had to stick your tongue in the them to clear them out.”
And the heavy snow conditions slowed skiing on the trail, as well, skiers said.
“Everything gets way softer and your skis sink in,” Kitchen said.
Skiers’ vision also suffered in the white flurry.
“I didn’t have glasses so I was squinting and couldn’t see very well,” said 14-year-old Aryn Clarke of Team Yukon.
Velders said he would have really struggled to see while skiing Tuesday if he had not had goggles.
“I probably would have hit a tree,” he said. “I’ve never seen it snow so much in my life. It was insane. If you were just looking forward everything was fuzzy. It was unreal.”
On Thursday, however, the sun was shinning brightly on the Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna and the snowflakes rested peacefully on the ground.
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