Last year, Susan Dunklee’s top finish at U26 Open European Biathlon Championships was 17th place in the sprint. At the time, she was pleased with the performance, but this year, she’s eclipsed that success – twice.
In the open individual race at this year’s U26 event, which took place in Ridnaun, Italy last week, Dunklee finished 15th – an auspicious start to the week for the only senior U.S. woman nominated for the races. Then in the sprint, she upped the ante, finishing ninth. She only missed two shots, skied the sixth-fastest course time of the day, and finished under a minute behind the winner, Juliane Doll of Germany.
How big is this step for Dunklee?
“Last year, my best result of the season was a 17th place at U26’s with 90% shooting and that felt like a huge achievement at the time,” she told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “This year, I progressed to the top ten with only 80% shooting, and I know that when I shoot clean, I can be a contender to win at this level.”
In the pursuit, Dunklee missed eight shots and lost a few places, but still finished 19th. With three top-20 finishes in three starts, and quite a few ski laps that were among the ten fastest on the day, Dunklee was “psyched”.
“The pursuit was a lot of fun, especially the first lap,” she said. “There were three girls that started within two seconds ahead of me, so I tucked in behind them and focused on skiing smooth and efficiently- it felt easy. Unfortunately I lost ground doing penalty loops.”
U.S. women’s head coach Jonne Kahkonen was impressed with Dunklee’s performances at the Championships.
“I’ve seen Susan’s training and racing now for about half a year and it seems like she has some good potential and she has also proven that on international competitions – more than once,” he said.
But he also warned that she still had a lot of work to do.
“There are a lot of things, very basic biathlon skills that Susan can still improve, which means that there’s quite a lot of room for improvement in general,” Kahkonen said. “To be able to take the next step, Susan will have to commit to the hard work even better and work even more. Taking the next step will be tougher, and the next one after that even tougher and so on.”
Dunklee’s success bodes well for the chances of other U.S. biathletes who were left behind on this trip. Katrina Howe of the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) and Hannah Dreissigacker of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project both attended trials races, where they finished behind Dunklee. Dreissigacker and Howe had competed at the U26 Championships and maintained the same time differences, they would have finished in the high twenties or low thirties.
A trio of U.S. junior women made the trip to Ridnaun as well, and their finishes were just as encouraging as Dunklee’s. Corrine Malcolm (MWSC) had the top result, racing to an impressive sixth place in the junior women’s sprint.
“This whole past week was pretty incredible,” Malcolm said. “After having the second-fastest ski time in the individual I knew that I could have good races later in the week. Sprints are the best format for me right now because there are less shooting stages.
“My standing shooting has been pretty horrendous all season and so going into these races the coaches and I decided it would be best for me to ski more conservatively before my standing stages,” she explained. “It has to be one of the strangest pacing strategies ever- when I think of racing I don’t commonly think of having to hold yourself back. But it paid off on Saturday when I only missed two targets! I had to work really hard to earn time back during my final loop but it makes me really excited for when I don’t have to be so cautious.”
Malcolm is just finishing her first season as a biathlete, and the switch has clearly been successful – and beneficial for the team.
“Corrine proved that she is a serious contender in the junior races,” Dunklee said of her younger teammate. “We’ve taken some large steps forward as a team this year and I’m fired up to see where it will take us in the future.”
In the pursuit, Malcolm suffered from cramping and had to drop out. She said that it was the first time she had ever dropped out of a race, and she hoped not to repeat the experience.
Grace Boutot, a MWSC teammate of Malcolm’s who has been one of the top U.S. juniors for several years, had finishes of 22nd and 34th this week.
The last member of the junior women’s squad, Kelly Kjorlien, has been in the U.S. junior pipeline for a few years now, like Boutot. But unlike Boutot, she is still technically a youth – so for her, competing in the junior races at the U26 event represented a jump in the level of competition.
“I was definitely a little overwhelmed going in to the races in Ridnaun because I’m younger than most of the field,” Kjorlien said. “But once I started racing I was much more comfortable. I just had to remind myself that it was just like any other race or training day, just skiing and shooting.
“I was really glad to have the opportunity to do some more big races this season,” she continued. “I learn something new with every race which is really valuable, because it’s not something that can be recreated in training. The trip really accelerated my excitement about my future in biathlon.”
The senior men’s squad – which unlike the women consisted of four men until Leif Nordgren left for senior World Championships – had some strong finishes of its own in the concluding sprint and pursuit races.
Russell Currier led the team in the sprint, finishing 25th. While it was a solid result, Currier was still frustrated- he missed five shots, or fifty percent.
“The goal was a top ten,” he told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I could have done that with almost three misses in the sprint. The podium was within reach all things considered! But since biathlon is such an inconsistent sport I probably shouldn’t be making any excuses. Over all I’m kind of disappointed with U26s.”
He was frank about his difficulty shooting.
“My shooting still wasn’t up to potential. I felt comfortable with it leading up to the race and was shooting well during intervals and time trials, but wasn’t able to demonstrate the same when it mattered. Most of my struggle in shooting has nothing to do with the mechanics, but more so just head case issues.”
Nevertheless, there were definite bright spots for Currier, who had the second-fastest ski time on one of his laps in Ridnaun.
“I was pleased to see my ski speed come back around,” he said. “I did some peaking work the week prior at sea level and I responded well enough to hold my own at altitude.”
Currier’s teammates Bill Bowler and Wynn Roberts finished in the 40s in both the sprint and pursuit.
American junior men Raleigh Goessling and Ethan Dreissigacker finished 43rd and 48th in the sprint, and in the pursuit Dreissigacker moved up to 39th and Goessling to 42nd.
Full results are available at the IBU Datacenter.