After last week’s success at the IBU Cup races in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, U.S. biathlete and 2010 Olympian Haley Johnson was promoted to the World Cup.
You might think that sending the top finisher off to Rupholding would slow down the American women racing on biathlon’s second-most prestigious circuit. But you’d be wrong. Susan Dunklee, Tracy Barnes, and Annelies Cook – who all missed qualifying for the Olympics last year – didn’t need Johnson on the roster to have the third-best team score in Friday’s sprint race in Altenberg, Germany.
Led by Dunklee’s tenth-place finish, the American squad trailed only the home team and the Russians.
Barnes and Cook have been on fire all season, each recording multiple top-20 finishes in IBU Cup racing and even earning a World Cup start or two. Today, they finished 17th and 21st.
But Dunklee, for whom this was only the third race in Europe this season, a top-10 result was a bit of a surprise.
“My zero groups were huge today and I haven’t felt on top of my game (skiing or shooting) for the past couple weeks so I didn’t have particularly high expectations for myself going into the race,” she told FasterSkier.
“Yeah, I’m psyched.”
Although this was the third year that Dunklee has made the trip to Nove Mesto and Altenberg, she’s never had such strong results before. She had finished in the top twenty just once on those trips.
But familiarity with the courses is never a bad thing, and Dunklee had a strategy for today.
“There’s a big steep headwall in the first half of the course and my goal was to hammer up and over the top and then hang on,” she said. “The trickiest part of the race was hearing my name announced over the PA system during the middle of my standing stage. It was a new experience for me and I really had to focus to hit my shots after that.”
A sometimes-erratic shooter, Dunklee missed only one shot on Friday.
In Saturday’s pursuit, the three women will start within twenty-five seconds of each other.
“For tomorrow, I want to have fun,” Dunklee said. “Tracy, Annelies and I will start practically within sight of each other and we hope to ski together and rumble with the women ahead of us.”
The U.S. men, who have not had as much success on the IBU Cup so far this season, were led by four-time Olympian Jay Hakkinen in 40th place. Hakkinen was sick in the fall to the season, and the Nove Mesto races were his first opportunities for head-to-head competition.
“Last week was my first races of the season,” Hakkinen said in an e-mail. “It was a great feeling to be back racing after being away so long. Since they were trials races, the big goal was to get back on the World Cup as soon as possible… but the [International Competition Committee] wanted me to race another week of IBU Cup races.”
After leading the team in Friday’s sprint, Hakkinen is one step closer to his goal.
“I am looking towards a World Cup start in Antholz, although there is no clear criteria or guarantee of whether I will be allowed to do so. I just hope to have a good performance in the pursuit tomorrow in order continue my goal of a top performance in the World Championships.”
If he does make the World Championships team, it will be an unusual story: because he was sick this fall, he didn’t even attend the trials races in Canmore or Mount Itasca and was named to the IBU Cup squad on discretion. Hakkinen also said that he wasn’t yet in race shape, and two days of racing in a row were a challenge for him.
However, he was positive about his shooting.
“My shooting has been strong,” he said. “Since while I was sick with mono, it was one of the only things I could work on and I knew I would be relying on it while I got used to the racing again.”
Bill Bowler was the next American, finishing a career-best 49th. He was just one second and one place ahead of teammate Zach Hall. Both athletes are relatively new to biathlon – Hall picked the sport up after graduating from Dartmouth College, while this is the first season that Bowler has raced internationally. The pair represent the opposite of Hakkinen in many ways – and were only thirty seconds behind him, for all his experience.
Wynn Roberts was another twenty-five seconds behind them in 56th, and Russell Currier rounded out the American squad in 82nd. Currier missed six of ten shots, among the most penalties in the field, and will be the only athlete sitting out Saturday’s pursuit.