NOVÉ MĚSTO NA MORAVĚ, Czech Republic – Every racer on the circuit tries to peak for World Championships, but despite the most careful of preparations, there are always questions: am I ready? Am I in my best shape? Can I win?
Although it has developed into a fiercely competitive race, the mixed relay – initially its own World Championships held after the last World Cup of the season, then incorporated into mid-season World Championships – serves also as a sort of litmus test. Before the individual racing begins, racers can test their shape in a team format.
For the Americans, the team passed the test.
“It’s always good to see where you are and I was skiing with Klemen Bauer [of Slovenia, the fastest third-leg skier] for most of the race, so, that’s a good sign,” said Lowell Bailey, who held the team steady in eighth.
Although the U.S. has had success in the format before – with just two men and two women, it gives smaller nations a fighting chance to duke it out with the big dogs – that has never been the case at World Championships. Since the event’s inception the Americans have failed to start three times, and their best finish was 12th in Ruhpolding last season.
In the Czech Republic today, they improved to eighth, the best World Championships result ever for the team.
Things started out with Annelies Cook, who was just off the lead pack after a perfect prone stage. She encountered trouble in standing, and eventually used all of her spare rounds. Cook tagged off in 14th, over a minute behind Tora Berger of Norway, and yet Bailey said that she’d done a great job controlling the damage.
“Annelies struggled with one her stages, but it’s all about not skiing penalty loops,” he explained. “She was able to stay in it, which kept us in contention.”
Cook had the seventh-fastest ski time of the leadoff skiers, and the next racer, Susan Dunklee, was ready to go even farther. Dunklee blazed around the course in the third-fastest time, and coupled with a single spare round, her split was the fastest of all the second-leg skiers. One highlight was skiing the last loop with Darya Domracheva of Belarus, last year’s World Cup runner-up.
“I think I passed her!” Dunklee laughed after the race. “She passed me and then I passed her. It felt great. I was sick for the first week or so of January, and I didn’t feel like I was quite 100% on form again until Antholz when we were training the last couple of weeks. I felt really good lately.”
For Dunklee, skiing fast was great, but shooting so well was magical.
“The prone, the last week or so in practice I’ve been able to hit the targets and it felt easy, and when I miss I’ve known where the misses are, and it was like that today,” she said. “So I was so excited about that. The standing was pretty stable. I don’t know what happened with that one miss, but it didn’t bother me, I was able to refocus.”
Bailey had been through something of a funk of his own in January, although not as directly related to illness as Dunklee’s was, and was pleased with his racing today. He used two spares in prone, but his shape was good enough that he was able to respond to that unexpected challenge.
“That set me back out of that pack I was in,” Bailey said. “Then I cleaned standing, which was good, and I was able to make some up on the last loop… I felt good. I had good preparation through the Antholz camp and managed to stay healthy and everything. It was really nice to have a few days off just to reset, and then just ramp up for World Champs.”
Dunklee agreed that the two-week training block in Antholz had done wonders for her ski form.
“It was huge,” she said. “I needed to reset, physically and mentally with the shooting.”
The U.S. anchor was Leif Nordgren, who was racing in the place of Tim Burke, who hasn’t been completely healthy in the last week. The men had differing views on how this affected things: Bailey said that considering Nordgren didn’t know he was racing until a few days ago, “hats off to him.”
Nordgren himself was less impressed.
“Tim has been battling some sickness for a while now, so I kind of knew there was a possibility and I was prepared for it,” he said. “It’s just another race.”
A single spare round in prone and then a clean standing stage moved Nordgren into seventh, but he wasn’t able to hold that. Matej Kazar of Slovakia caught him on the last loop, and Nordgren was just edged in a photo finish.
“I didn’t have a lot of gas left on the last loop,” he admitted. “But I did ski I think probably a fairly even race. The tracks were a little deep in some places, but I was happy with my skiing too. It was a good first race.”
Nordgren didn’t quite share Bailey’s conviction that the eighth-place result was amazing, but he might have just been disappointed at losing that photo finish. Still, he said it was a strong result, and that eighth place at World Championships means more than the same finish would in a World Cup.
“I don’t think it’s the best, but it’s a good result, especially considering that it’s World Championships and everyone has their top teams,” he said.
Breaking the race down, the team still sees room for improvement. In total, their ski times added up the sixth-fastest of the day – and within seconds of several faster teams. Instead, the range will be the focus as the team prepares for 2014, where the event will make its Olympic debut. It may be one of the team’s best chances for a medal.
“I see this as a really strong performance for our team and a good indicator that the team is ready for the World Championships,” United States Biathlon Association President Max Cobb wrote in an e-mail. “Susan Dunklee had a super ski time and overall the team was just two seconds off the Russians. The shooting was solid but we can still be faster on the range, it is our goal to improve that for next year so we can contend for a mixed relay medal in Sochi.”
On the range, the Americans were in total a minute slower than the winning Norwegian team. That was more on par with teams out of the top ten than those on the podium, and erasing that deficit would have put them almost exactly on par with the bronze-medal Czech Republic.
But it’s good to have something specific and tangible to work on, and for now, Cobb says, the team is doing just fine – as evidenced by their best result ever.
“The training has been good, confidence is growing and the team spirit is really good,” he wrote. “I think this opening today is very reassuring for everyone – we are ready to perform. I think we will see some more personal bests at these championships.”