After last week’s performances in by the men’s team, highlighted by Russell Currier’s sixth-place finish in the 10 k sprint during just his second World Cup start of the season, the U.S. women’s biathlon team needed a feel-good story of their own to stay in the spotlight.
In Thursday’s 7.5 k sprint in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy, they did just that as World Cup rookie Susan Dunklee raced to her first top-20 result. The 17th-place finish was not only the best by an American woman this season, but it earned her a spot in Sunday’s mass start, which is limited to 30 women; 25 of those spots go to the top-ranked skiers on the overall circuit.
It’s no top-ten, but Dunklee, unlike Currier, is a true rookie – she competed in the first World Cup races of her career in November.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am, and the whole staff is for her performance,” U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen said in a press release.
Under Kahkonen’s tenure, which began in 2010, only two athletes have been promoted from the IBU Cup to get their first taste of World Cup racing. Dunklee is the most successful; Annelies Cook, the other, has spent parts of the last two seasons at this level and finished 74th today. Other, more senior athletes, have also bounced back and forth between the two circuits.
Dunklee’s success was a confidence boost for the program, according to U.S. Biathlon Association High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler.
“It was a super exciting day for the women’s team,” he said in the press release. “To be 17th with one penalty is an absolutely super performance that will push the whole women’s team another step forward.”
And as for Dunklee?
“I didn’t have any lofty goals going into today,” she told FasterSkier.
The rookie has led the women’s team on several occasions already this season, with a previous best result of 28th. In Nove Mesto last weekend, however, she came down with a cold and had to sit out the pursuit. While she’s mostly over the bug, it was part of the reason that she didn’t expect great things from the Antholz sprint.
“This past week has been a struggle for me, but I feel ready to tackle a couple more races before next week’s break,” Dunklee said.
While she was recovering, she had a particularly enlightening dry-firing session – that’s when biathletes practice shooting routine without any bullets in their rifles, usually aiming at dots on a piece of paper – with Kahkonen. Dunklee started as a biathlete after graduating from college, and had never worked with the sport’s 22-caliber rifles before that point; this is the first season that her shooting has been consistently accurate.
“We found a few small details to work on in prone that made a huge difference for me,” she said. “I knew as I took the shoots today that they were going to hit.”
Dunklee did clean her prone stage before missing a single shot in standing. After prone, she was ranked 9th – which was especially meaningful since she started later than most of the top-ranked women.
Her course time was the 16th-fastest on the day; Dunklee finished just over a minute and half behind winner Magdalena Neuner of Germany, and 23 seconds out of the top ten. If she had cleaned both shooting stages, she likely would have made it.
“Even the TV broadcasters recognized her strong showing and covered both her shooting stages and her finish,” U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb wrote in an e-mail. “This is an outstanding performance and great progress.”
One more thing that Dunklee had going for her?
“It’s great to be back in the mountains,” she told FasterSkier. “I didn’t realize how much I’d been missing them the last several weeks. Yesterday was so sunny and beautiful – the best day on the World Cup circuit this year.”
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Dunklee’s performance was one of the lone bright spots for the North American teams. While Kahkonen said that it was “really fun to see that we had the whole team fighting for the points,” none of the other women finished in the top 40 to earn them.
Sara Studebaker was the next U.S. finisher and came closest to the points, finishing 43rd. After cleaning the prone stage, Studebaker was skiing inside the top thirty. Two misses in standing dropped her down to 48th; after turning on the afterburners in the final 2.5 k loop, she was able to gain five places.
Tracy Barnes finished 57th and Cook, as mentioned, 74th.
For the Canadians, Megan Imrie led the way in 47th. She missed one shot in prone and was ranked 39th, but slipped out of the points after accruing two penalties in standing. Teammates Zina Kocher and Rosanna Crawford placed 62nd and 63rd.
Based on her overall World Cup ranking, Kocher has an outside chance of joining Dunklee in the mass start. She is currently the fourth alternate, waiting to see whether any of the 30 women decide not to race. At least one, Andrea Henkel of Germany, sat out today’s sprint.