The single mixed relay is a relatively new format, and one that is not yet contested at World Championships or the Olympics.
And so when a single mixed relay (two athletes) and a ‘normal’ mixed relay (four athletes) are held on the same day, the U.S. Biathlon World Cup team’s policy has always been clear: prioritize the mixed relay, and get the World Champs and Olympic team the most practice possible for their big days.
All that changed in Kontiolahti, Finland, today.
The U.S. decided to put Susan Dunklee and Lowell Bailey – both medalists at 2017 World Championships – on the single mixed relay. Even before the race began, expectations were high. The Americans were calling themselves the “dream team”.
After the race? Oh, yeah.
The duo finished second, claiming the first relay podium by an American biathlon team since 1994, when Beth Coats, Joan Smith Miller, Laura Tavares, and Ntala Skinner finished second in the women’s 4 x 6 k in Canmore.
“We have known that if we had our best day on the right day, that it was possible in the mixed relay even a few years ago,” Dunklee said of having a relay podium. “For that mixed relay it just quite hasn’t happened for us. I think maybe we psyched ourselves out a few times… I have dreamed for a long time being able to run into the finishing pen and with a bib on and a rifle, and greet my teammates as they come in. It’s so cool to finally do that. It’s definitely a dream come true.”
But if she pictured running into the finishing pen of a normal biathlon event, the single mixed relay might not have come to mind. The format of the newest World Cup competition is unusual. Loops are 1.5 kilometers, shorter than any other ski loops on the World Cup. The women ski (and shoot) twice, then tag off to the men just after shooting so the men can ski (and shoot) twice, then the women twice again, then the men twice, and finally the men getting to ski one last 1.5 k loop to reach the finish line.
That unfamiliarity came with excitement: the team knew ahead of time that they had a good chance of a top finish. With a flat course, both Americans felt good about their power skiing. The format also has the highest shooting-to-skiing ratio of any biathlon competition, and the pair had been shooting almost unbelievably well in the second half of the season.
“The stuff Susan and I have been working on throughout the training year in shooting, which is namely trying to reduce our shooting times and shoot quicker, lends itself to a race format like the single mixed relay,” Bailey said. “It was my first single mixed relay and Susan’s as well, and we were totally psyched. It’s a great moment to see both programs, both the men’s and the women’s teams, have a joint success like this.”
Despite the new format, Dunklee found herself leading on the second loop, thanks to a fast and clean prone shooting.
Then — she fell on a downhill.
“It just happened so fast and before I knew it I was on the ground, and my rifle fell on the back of my head where I have a nice sore bruise now,” Dunklee said. “After that I just got up. I had a few hundred meters before I need to be ready to shoot, and that’s more important than freaking out and worrying about it too much.”
She blamed “snow snakes,” but Dunklee managed to re-gain some determination. By the time she reached the shooting range she had re-focused. Dunklee hit all five targets in quick succession, claiming the fastest standing shooting time of all the women.
She tagged off to Bailey in third place — just 8.9 seconds behind Kazakhstan and Germany — and the U.S. was back on track.
Bailey, for his part, completed the second leg of the relay with two spare rounds, skiing comfortably near the front of groups and tagging off in fifth, +17.2 seconds.
“What’s interesting about this course is that it’s pretty flat except for one relatively modest uphill,” Bailey said. “Today there was quite a bit of wind on the course so to be leading was a disadvantage in a group. So you saw some tactical play up at the front of the race. I felt like I could’ve gone harder in the initial loops, but I also knew that with such a short, 1.5 k loop, the shooting really is where the race is won or lost. So my strategy was to just stay in contact with the lead group.”
Meanwhile, Simon Eder of Austria had gone to the front and Austria would hang onto the lead for the rest of the race. Lisa Theresa Hauser had used two spare rounds in her first standing, but through both of Eder’s relay legs and Hauser’s second leg the team used only three. That turned out to be untouchable.
“Once Austria got far enough off the chase pack, I felt it was more of a risk to try to go all out in my last leg to try to catch Austria, than try to hit my targets,” Bailey said.
That’s because behind Austria, it was still a fight. After Bailey quickly hit his extra shots, it was Dunklee’s turn. She again cleaned prone before needing two spare rounds in standing. But the wind on the range in Kontiolahti had been tricky all day, and most of the other leaders also used spares. So despite the missed shots, Dunklee still managed to move up to second place.
“I think everyone was struggling, especially standing,” Dunklee said. “I would not normally expect to be even with, or not lose a whole lot of places on, the leaders [with two spares], but since everybody else was struggling too it was okay… I think with this short format, you get a little bit more adrenaline and you are pushed a little bit harder in skiing. You get the shaky legs going when you’re standing.”
With Austria seemingly untouchable, Bailey was left to battle it out with France, Germany, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan.
After one more clean prone, he was fifth, but still with the group.
In standing, Bailey needed a spare round. But again, he loaded them extremely fast – allowing him to leave the range in third place anyway. In his haste to hit the trails, he almost fell on the sharp corner leading out of the range and into the stadium. But he kept his balance, and then hit the gas.
“The tactics at the front of the race in the third and fourth loops for me, the pace was not all that high, so I really felt pretty fresh when I came out of standing for that last 1.5 k loop,” Bailey said. “I knew that it was basically just a really long sprint finish. So I just tried to sprint from the mat essentially and hoped that I didn’t run out of gas by the finish line.”
Ahead of Bailey: Roman Rees of Germany, just four seconds away. Rees is one year out of the junior ranks, and had only ever competed in one other World Cup relay of any kind. Twelve years older, Bailey set out to catch him.
But behind: Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France, another veteran with as many podiums to his name as Bailey had. Leaving the range Beatrix was less than a second behind Bailey, and wanted to get onto the podium.
Between Germany, France, and the United States, there was only room for two on the podium. As the 1.5 k loop wore on, Beatrix faded – only a few seconds, but enough to keep him and his French teammate Anais Chevalier in fourth place.
By the time the race came to the stadium, Bailey had caught Rees. He tried to use all of his power to pass on the inside corner, but Rees held strong. The two ended up dueling down the finishing straight, with Bailey prevailing by just half a second.
“YES!” he screamed as he crossed the finish line, 32.8 seconds behind the Austrian team. Dunklee ran out to meet him.
“That was a first and it’s a great feeling,” Bailey said. “In a lot of ways it’s better than just going out and having a great race on your own, but to have a great team result like that, it’s a new experience. I shouldn’t say that, we’ve had some great team results in both the mixed relay and the men’s relay — we were fourth place last year in the mixed relay [in Canmore], but no one really wants to go out and celebrate in the finish zone with fourth place. This was the first time that you could hug your teammate in the finish zone. I’ve watched that phenomenon throughout my career so it’s nice to experience it.”
The U.S. had matched the Austrians on the range, using just five spares to Germany’s six, but the timing was off: Austria had gone, and so Bailey had concentrated on winning second, not potentially blowing up in chase of first place.
That turned out to be a good strategy, because Eder had knocked down his final five standing targets with scorching speed of 17.9 seconds. By comparison, Dunklee’s best mark among the women was 21.4 seconds.
“I actually talked to Simon Eder after the race because I knew his last shooting was blistering fast, and I said, ‘Hey, what was your strategy there? You didn’t have to shoot that fast’,” Bailey said. “And he said, ‘I came in and the wind died right when I got into position so I knew I had just a few moments there to take advantage of it.’ By the time [our] chase group, which was 30 seconds or less behind him hit the mat, [the wind] was back to being gusty.”
The Canadian team of Julia Ransom and Christian Gow finished 19th, +2:27.0, with eight spare rounds.
In the mixed relay later in the day, the French team of Marie Dorin Habert, Anais Bescond, Simon Desthieux, and Quinton Fillon Maillet took the win, followed by Germany (+11.0 seconds) and Ukraine (+27.1).
The American team of Clare Egan, Joanne Reid, Paul Schommer, and Sean Doherty finished eighth, +1:37.4.
The Canadian team of Emma Lunder, Megan Bankes, Scott Gow, and Brendan Green finished 22nd in the mixed relay, +6:09.5.
“I would just reiterated that I was just psyched to see the whole team do well, both in the single mixed and the mixed relay,” Bailey said. “It’s Nations Cup points, so it counts for our Nation Cup overall total score for the women and the men. It was a pretty important race in that regard. I’m really happy for the team. Everyone deserves it, the techs and everyone, it’s been a really long season and they’re still working as hard as ever so I’m really thankful for that.”
-Harald Zimmer, Alex Kochon, and Ian Tovell contributed