Neuner Bounces Back to Win Oberhof Sprint; U.S. Women Struggle In First Race Back from Break

Chelsea LittleJanuary 6, 2012
Susan Dunklee racing in Oestersund, Sweden earlier this year. Photo: courtesy of USBA.

After an extreme and unexpected implosion in Wednesday’s relay, Magdalena Neuner of Germany scooted out of the stadium without talking to the press.

On Friday, she was able to hold her head high after hitting all of her targets and skiing to a 37-second win over Darya Domracheva of Belarus in the 7.5 k World Cup sprint in Oberhof, Germany.

“It was important for me to delete that last race,” she said in the post-race press conference. “In biathlon, you have good and bad days, and today I just pushed that delete button and had a great day.”

The crowd of 18,000 rabid fans couldn’t have agreed more. The crowd quieted as she shot her standing stage – the same place where she had missed all five targets just two days before – and then exploded in cheers and applause after she cleaned.

“On a perfect day like this, you se the importance of shooting clean,” she said.

Far behind her, the trio of American women struggled to achieve the results they were looking for.

For Susan Dunklee, who led the Americans on multiple occasions in the first period of World Cup racing, the difficulties were as much technical as anything else. The problems started with a jammed bullet.

“In the process of fixing that, I thought I had ejected a round, so I hand loaded my fifth shot while there was actually still a bullet in the magazine, which caused a second jam,” she explained to FasterSkier. “Then I had to take out the extra round from the magazine before skiing off – it’s a safety rule.”

As a result, Dunklee spent a minute and ten seconds “shooting”, or about 40 more than she usually does. Without that added time, she would have placed in the top 20 for the first time in her young career.

But as it was, hammed bullets and all, she was left to tie for 35th place with Fukuyo Suzuki of Japan. Dunklee pointed out that the shooting itself was pretty good; she only had two penalties, which she said felt good. Next race, however, she hopes to spend less time on the range.

As for the skiing, Dunklee had trouble getting going, but eventually hit her stride.

“This a very difficult course to ski,” she said. “The Bergsteig climb is very hard at the start of the loop, and that is followed by three more sizable hills. It took me awhile to find the faster gears, but I think that kept me from starting too hard and blowing up.”

Dunklee’s teammate Sara Studebaker missed three shots and didn’t have her best day on skis either, ending up 56th.

“It was the first race back after a break, and I think it was a little tough for all of us to really feel 100 percent physically or mentally today,” she wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “It’s always tough to just jump back in race mode.”

However, she would not have changed anything about her ten-day break from the circuit – staying in Europe, she said, wouldn’t have made her any faster.

“For me, going home over break was absolutely necessary,” she wrote. “I felt like I was able to rejuvenate and get away from biathlon for a while, which is what I needed. We’re going to be over here until March if we make World Championships, and that’s too long for most of us to be away from home without a break.

“In order to be mentally ready for this stretch of racing, I needed to be home over the holidays.”

Studebaker also faced another foe in the Oberhof trails themselves, which she said were not her favorite.

“I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Oberhof,” she explained. “I hate the inconsistent and tough weather that’s more often than not thrown at us, it’s a really tough course, especially in these softer conditions. But the fans make the atmosphere here so fun and amazing. Today was not a great race for me, but I feel pretty lucky to get to race at a venue like this; it’s very exciting.”

Dunklee agreed, and pointed out that unlike the last two races, which threw rain, wind, and snow at the relay teams, today was actually quite mild.

“Conditions were the nicest they’ve been all week,” Dunklee said. “Slight and shifting breezes, not gale force winds. We didn’t have to contend with a blizzard either. The course was a little soft on a couple of the uphills, but considering all the new snow we’ve had the past couple days, it was great.”

The last American, Annelies Cook, missed five shots and placed 76th.

“I know that I can shoot well, but there is something missing or going wrong and I haven’t figured it out yet,” she wrote on her blog.

The Canadians don’t have a team in Oberhof, but did give a start to Megan Heinicke, the top Canadian woman at the 2010 Olympics who is currently living in Germany with her husband. In her first individual World Cup of the season, she placed 64th.

Since none of the North Americans are qualified for the 30-woman mass start race on Sunday, they have some time on their hands for the rest of the weekend.

For Dunklee, the light schedule provides a chance to explore the culture of biathlon’s heartland, which is a new experience for the World Cup rookie.

“I hope we can get out and cheer on the men,” she said. “It would be fun to fully appreciate the tens of thousands of fans here without worrying about the stress of a race.”

What else is on her to-do list? Something that most people forget biathletes even do.

“I hope to head out on a longer classic ski in the new snow,” she said. “We’ve had very few days this winter when we’ve been able to get out on a loop that is longer than 4 k.”

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Chelsea Little

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