For a while in Thursday’s 7.5-kilometer sprint, the first International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup race since IBU World Championships two weeks earlier, it looked like Susan Dunklee was on track for another podium.
Dunklee, 31, of US Biathlon, had last raced to second place in the mass start on the last day of World Championships, Feb. 19 in Hochfilzen, Austria, for the best result of an American woman at Biathlon World Championships.
The 35th starter on Thursday in PyeongChang, South Korea, she crossed the finish line in third, 59.7 seconds behind Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier in first and 51.3 seconds behind Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff in second. Dunklee had cleaned the prone shooting stage then missed her second shot in standing to leave the range in fourth as she started her final loop.
Early in that 2.5 k loop, Dunklee’s time slipped slightly to fifth. She was racing the clock and for precious places, and she clawed her way into third at the finish.
Ultimately, Dunklee was bumped off the podium to fifth — for her fifth top five of the season (say that five times fast).
Dahlmeier won it, as the 18th starter with clean shooting and a finishing time of 20:43.7 minutes. France’s Anaïs Chevalier in bib 51 raced to third with fast, clean shooting (posting the second-fastest range time and third-fastest shooting), ending up 41.6 seconds off Dahlmeier’s time.
Then there was Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen, the 70th starter, who had to ski two penalty loops after standing (0+2) but skied the second-fastest overall course time to put herself in fourth at the finish (+58.7), just one second ahead of Dunklee.
Reflecting on her race, Dunklee explained in an email that she tried to be patient, especially on the final loop. Conditions in at the brand-new Olympic venue in PyeongChang weren’t easy with what Dunklee described in an email as “a patchwork of glazed, icy and slow patches.”
She explained that volunteers had been working with hand tools before the start to smooth out the course, which she felt helped “substantially.”
“I think the course is good for me: big climbs with technical descents,” Dunklee wrote. “I focused on pushing the last half km of the loop where I thought other people would be tired. And our techs made great skis for these challenging conditions.”
On that last loop, Dunklee received splits that she was seconds out of the top three.
“That helped me fight,” she wrote. “I also caught a good ride with Marie Dorin Habert my last loop…”
Dorin Habert, of France, who had started 67th and left the range for the last time in third with perfect shooting, did not finish her final loop. She reportedly withdrew after feeling nauseous.
Dunklee, who spent three days on a mini vacation in Barcelona before training in Ruhpolding, Germany, and arrived in South Korea last Sunday, will start Saturday’s 10 k pursuit in fifth, exactly one minute behind Dahlmeier in first and one second behind Mäkäräinen. Beyond that, she has 18 seconds to make up to third.
She wrote that she was looking forward to sticking with Mäkäräinen out of the start, “but I still plan to race my own race,” and “as always the key is to stay focused on the process of performing well.”
Asked how she was feeling at this point in the season, Dunklee wrote, “More relaxed and carrying a good dose of confidence after Hochfilzen.”
Dahlmeier raced to her fifth-straight win on Thursday, holding off Eckhoff (in bib 29) by 8.4 seconds after all three podium finishers (including Chevalier) shot a perfect 10-for-10 despite tricky wind. Dahlmeier posted the fastest overall course time and gradually sped up each loop for her eighth individual win this season. At World Championships, she took gold in five out of six races (two being relays).
“I try to keep the focus high, to give everything every time for the competitions,” the 23-year-old Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ARD. “That is not completely easy, there were a few days of distraction in between [World championships and now] where I tried to relax and do something very different away from biathlon. Then we had a long and arduous travel, but that’s true for everyone. Now the start times are also a bit weird, 8:15 p.m. local time. I just tried to take that as it is and managed to do that very well.”
She tried not to be overly critical of the course conditions, yet explained they weren’t ideal.
“To me it felt like ski-club championships. We used to have self-made loops there. That’s pretty much how the course was today,” she said. “… Conditions were really not easy. Very wavy, uneven, old snow with freshly fallen snow on top. In some parts also very dirty. So really changing conditions, in some parts a shaky track with icy patches. Not easy, but I think I got lucky with my first start group, conditions were probably still better for that. And in those conditions, the gaps on the course became a bit bigger today.”
Germany’s head coach Gerald Hönig told ARD he was “incredibly impressed” with Dahlmeier, who leads the World Cup Total Score by 86 points over Gabriela Koukalová, who finished 21st (+1:43.4) on Thursday with two penalties (1+1).
“The Laura Dahlmeier success story is continuing here,” Hönig said. “She really confirmed her level of consistency, and the successes in Hochfilzen are a difficult baggage to carry into the next races. Really difficult days for her in the aftermath of the World Championships, respectively the trip here, though that is true for most of the athletes. But I can only say hats off to how Laura always manages to execute her goals.”
She’ll start the pursuit 8 seconds before Eckhoff. Asked how she’d spend her rest day on Friday, Dahlmeier said she didn’t have an exact plan.
“I probably won’t go on the range and the courses are not so inviting that I need to go cross-country skiing. Maybe some cross-running and coordination,” she said. “And if the timing works out then I’d like to visit some local temple.”
Three out of four U.S. women qualified for Saturday’s pursuit, and all four Canadian starters qualified with a top 60 in the sprint.
Rosanna Crawford led the Canadians in 30th (+1:54.9) with one prone miss (1+0). She was followed by teammates Megan Tandy in 39th (+2:14.8), Julia Ransom in 41st (+2:19.5) and Emma Lunder in 51st (+2:38.2), all of which had one standing penalty (0+1).
Americans Clare Egan and Joanne Reid finished 33rd (+1:59.5) and 35th (+2:07.6), respectively. Each had one standing miss as well (0+1). Maddie Phaneuf finished 68th (+3:07.7) with one standing penalty (0+1), missing the top 60 by 14.4 seconds.
The men’s 10 k sprint takes place Friday morning at 5 Eastern time, 7 p.m. Korea time.
— Harald Zimmer contributed