Over the last month, US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee has become a familiar face for competitors and spectators at World Cup medal and flower ceremonies, highlighted by her silver medal in the mass start at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria.
On Friday in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint at the IBU World Cup in Kontiolahti, Finland, Dunklee once again returned to the flower ceremony after finishing fifth, which, coincidentally, was her third time in a row in that place (excluding the women’s relay where the U.S. finished 14th). Last week in PyeongChang, South Korea, Dunklee placed fifth in both the World Cup sprint and pursuit. In four straight races (including the World Championships mass start), she has finished in the top five.
“It’s been an incredible run these past few weeks,” Dunklee said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “I’m riding on momentum. Sometimes you fall into biathlon funks when you don’t succeed no matter how hard you try, and other times you find a groove where it feels easy. I don’t really understand it but I do know that resilience and patience are essential in biathlon.”
After incurring one penalty in her prone shooting stage (1+0), Dunklee finished 34.9 seconds behind Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, who won in 19:18.5 minutes, and 15 seconds off the podium.
“It think it was my second shot. It was nothing remarkable,” Dunklee wrote in an email to FasterSkier about her lone miss. “With almost no wind, I knew there would be lots of clean shooting. The course was tricky with lots of icy patches. Our techs picked good skis for the conditions.”
Dunklee’s split time after the prone shooting would only stand as the 34th-ranked time of the day, but with the 10th-fastest overall course time and a clean standing bout, Dunklee moved up significantly, pushing hard up a steep 230-meter-long climb nicknamed “The Wall” on the last loop to chase the times set by the leaders.
“This course suits me well with lots of V2 alternate and V1,” Dunklee explained. “I remember that wall well from World Championships a couple years ago and saved a little energy so I could attack there. I had splits that I was fighting for fourth.”
Fourth was the position she initially finished in, but the very last starter of the field in bib 94, Daria Virolaynen of Russia, shot clean and bested Dunklee’s time by one-tenth of a second, bumping the American to fifth place.
Like most of the 94 starters, Dunklee had just made the long trip to and from South Korea to test the venue for next year’s Winter Olympics. But she didn’t let the travel stress discourage her heading into the last two World Cup stops of the season, and even saw advantages.
“It was a very long and stressful travel day and the Seoul airport was not properly prepared to efficiently inspect 100s of rifles,” Dunklee wrote. “It’s safe to say everyone is feeling run down. I reminded myself that I often perform comparatively well when tired and I have much more experience dealing with jetlag than my competition.”
Kontiolahti is hosting the eighth World Cup stage of the season, replacing Tyumen, Russia, which would have been a significantly shorter flight from Asia, after Russia relinquished hosting in the wake of the McLaren report.
For the clean-shooting Eckhoff, her sprint victory in Kontiolahti was her first win of the season and third of her career. The star of the last year’s IBU World Championships at home in Oslo, Norway, Eckhoff failed to crack the top 10 in a non-relay race in Hochfilzen this season, but rebounded at the PyeongChang World Cup with a second place in the sprint and relay.
“The travel from Korea was very bad,” Eckhoff explained. “It was very long. But I slept a lot and did not train too much after that, so I think I managed it OK … I look forward very much to tomorrow (for the pursuit), and I will try to shoot as well as I did today.”
In an interview with German broadcaster ZDF, Eckhoff explained she was proud to have surpassed the individual career wins of her older brother Stian Eckhoff, who now coaches the Norwegian women’s team.
Starting immediately behind her on Friday, Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who had dominated this year’s World Championships and won the last six races, narrowly missed her seventh-straight win. Dahlmeier led the race after the prone stage, but then one of her standing shots hit the edge of the target, making it tremble but not flip over to turn white.
Dahlmeier had to ski one penalty lap, and on the final loop, Eckhoff increased her lead by four seconds with the fastest final loop and second-fastest overall course time, leaving Dahlmeier 18.3 seconds back in second for her ninth podium in a row.
“I am happy to be on the podium again,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “It wasn’t easy today, also to find the right attitude after the long travel. I tried to stay focused on the range, but I noticed Tiril Eckhoff right next to me leaving the range with zero [misses]. I think that shot was really close. But that’s not a problem, I can live with that one miss. Still a good shooting, and especially a good result.”
“I tried to stay very concentrated on the course,” she added. “It was very icy today, like a mirror.”
Because her fiercest opponents for the overall World Cup Total Score title had weaker performances on Friday — with Gabriela Koukalová of the Czech Republic finishing 13th (+52.6, 0+1) and Finland’s hometown favorite Kaisa Mäkäräinen 49th (+1:50.4, 2+2) — Dahlmeier increased lead to 138 points over Koukalová and 204 over Mäkäräinen.
“The most important thing this season was to stay healthy,“ Dahlmeier said at the post-race press conference. “I think this was the key to success and I am very happy about it … I think it’s over when it is over, and not now. I don’t look at the total World Cup or something else, I just want to focus from one race to the next.”
Darya Domracheva of Belarus shot clean in both stages and was even with Dahlmeier at the last split time, but lost two seconds in the last few hundred meters to finish third (+20.4). It was her second podium finish of the season after a silver medal in the World Championships pursuit, returning to racing just a few months after the birth of her first child.
“I did not have any expectations before the season,” Domracheva said at the press conference. “Each moment like that I take it as a present, as a compliment. I am happy to be here on the podium.”
“No matter if second or third, it’s really good feelings,” she added. “Especially in my situation after a few months of trainings, I just can be happy now … It’s a little bit more things to organize now, and different feelings on the track after no normal season preparation. But step-by-step it is getting better and I feel that I can fight (for the podium) and that’s good to know.”
All three U.S. women who raced on Friday finished in the top 60 to qualify for Saturday’s pursuit.
“Tomorrow is another great opportunity,” Dunklee told US Biathlon. “I have several fast people close around me to ski with.”
US Biathlon’s Joanne Reid managed to shoot clean in both stages and finished 55th (+1:59.7). Clare Egan was in 19th after a clean prone and skied a very fast second loop (11th course time on that loop), but three penalties in standing set her back. In posting the 24th-fastest overall course time, Egan clawed back a few positions on the final loop to finish 59th (+2:07.4) to narrowly qualify for the pursuit.
Two Canadians qualified as well, with Emma Lunder in 56th (+2:02.8) with one miss (1+0) and Julia Ransom making the cut as the last qualifier in 60th (+2:08.0) with one penalty (1+0).
In her first World Cup start, Canada’s 19-year-old Megan Bankes — coming off a gold medal in the individual race at IBU Junior World Championships in Slovenia — placed 78th (+2:56.9) with three penalties (2+1). Canadian Megan Tandy did not start due to a stomach flu.