While U.S. and Canadian skiers have been competing at FIS and World Cup races for several weeks now, the American biathletes waited until Sunday to kick off their season in an IBU Cup sprint.
The race in Ostersund, Sweden, was actually the second of the weekend, but the U.S. team sat out of Saturday’s race. While the men were lucky to have skipped the windy conditions that shook up the result sheet in the opener, the whole team was faced with a new challenge on Sunday: fresh snow.
Until that morning, there had been little natural snow on the ground in Ostersund. Instead, the race course was packed with snow hoarded from the previous winter.
“The course in Ostersund has been prepared with snow that was stockpiled last winter and covered with a tarp and wood-chips to keep it through the summer,” U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb wrote in an e-mail. “Without that we would not be able to have any training or racing in Ostersund this November.”
But on Sunday, the weather finally gave the venue what it’s been wanting all along – real, fresh, new snow.
“It was snowing when I woke up this morning and it continued to storm until after the races,” said national team member Susan Dunklee. “Now it looks like a winter wonderland with several centimeters of new snow.”
The “A” team did not compete on Sunday, since they are prequalified for the World Cup. Instead, the race served as a time trial for the “B” team and independent athletes who hoped to join them next weekend and fill the team’s four-man, four-woman World Cup quota. The IBU Cup is a coordinated series of eight race weekends for racers just below the World Cup level; this weekend’s openers in Ostersund were filled with well-known World Cup athletes as well.
In the men’s 10 k sprint, Jay Hakkinen led the way in 27th place with two penalties, finishing just under two minutes behind winner and Olympic medalist Jakov Fak of Slovenia.
The veteran was philosophical about what the result meant.
“The first race of the season is always a bit unpredictable, and therefore it can be a bit stressful, which is why I was glad the first race was an IBU Cup,” Hakkinen wrote in an e-mail. “The focus was to apply what I worked on in the training to the racing, as far as shooting, technique and so on. Therefore, the overall result was not as important as gathering information.”
The U.S. Biathlon Association was also hoping to gather information, and the results led them to name Hakkinen as the last member of the World Cup squad. He joins Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, and Leif Nordgren. The four teamed up to place sixth in the relay at World Championships last year.
The other U.S. finishers, Jeremy Teela in 49th, +2:47, and Bill Bowler in 108th, +6:33, will head to the next IBU Cup races in Ridnaun, Italy.
In the women’s 7.5 k race, Dunklee and Lanny Barnes led the way with almost identical results; the pair finished 42nd and 43rd, separated by just half a second. But they took different routes to their finishes, with Dunklee missing three shots but notching the 29th-fastest course time on the day, and Barnes collecting a single penalty but skiing the 59th-fastest time.
They also had different outlooks on their results.
“It feels great to have one race done and to already have one that I feel good about,” Dunklee told Fasterskier. “My missed prone shoots were a little wild, so that could have gone a little bit better. [But] on skis I was able to push hard on all three laps and focus on every section.”
Barnes – along with her sister Tracy, who finished 76th with four penalties – was not so cheery.
“The race was a disappointment for both of us,” the twins wrote in an e-mail. “We had both been feeling really great earlier in the week, but felt pretty lousy today. We probably pushed a bit too much in training the last two weeks we’ve been here. That is how it goes though, and this is the first race of a very long season.”
All three women noted the difficulty of skiing through inches of soft snow – something that took them entirely by surprise after the hard and fast tracks they had been practicing on all week.
“It’s funny because it turned to winter here today, and the fast icy manmade snow conditions turned to deep, slow new snow,” the Barnes wrote. “It’s dumping snow out now. Good to see some of that white stuff coming down- [we] haven’t seen any of that since we left Colorado.”
Dunklee and Lanny Barnes will join Sara Studebaker and Laura Spector on the World Cup, while Tracy Barnes and Annelies Cook, who finished 79th with five penalties, will continue on the IBU Cup circuit.
Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, last year’s overall World Cup champion, won the race by thirty seconds despite missing three shots.