I like to describe biathlon as an emotional rollercoaster. For athletes, the highs are very intense and the lows can feel devastating as we seek to have the “perfect race.” I rarely come close. Many different pieces must come together on the same day. I lucked out on a special day in Ruhpolding, Germany. Many pieces came together for me when it counted the most and I placed 5th at World Championships in the Individual race.
I usually prefer being seeded about 1/3 of the way through the race field so that I can ski around the fastest competitors. However, in these Championships I was not destined to have a normal starting number. Earlier in the week, I started the Sprint last with bib #118. For the Individual, I had the opposite experience and was assigned bib #1. So much for sticking to routine. I felt a little nervous, but Hannah pointed out a positive: “you’ll get to be famous, no matter how you race!”
Despite a few extra nerves, I enjoyed myself at the starting line. I hadn’t put much pressure on myself for the Individual. Going into the Championships, I believed the Sprint was my best chance for doing well. The Individual is usually my weakest race because it is more of a shooter’s race and each missed target results in a costly one minute penalty. That said, it is a race where anybody can have a good day if they shoot well, and I knew that included me.
I later heard that the film crews found my parents in the crowd and showed them on the big screen as I started. Once upon a time, my parents used to cross-country ski race for the University of Vermont. My father also competed in the ’76 and ’80 Olympics. Since then, they have turned into elite level fans who will arrive at the venue 5 hours before race start to claim a front row spot along the fence. Over the course of the championships, they befriended (i.e. were adopted by) several other spectators around them. One afternoon they even returned with German flags painted on their faces. I told them that this was only acceptable if their new friends started sporting stars and stripes. However, I must give them credit for turning their section of fence into a giant American cheering section.
Any serious biathlete can clean (hit all their targets) during practice, even during high intensity workouts. However with the pressure of a race, shooting becomes a lot more difficult. I find that the more I want to hit my targets, the less likely the paddles are to fall. Until a few weeks ago, I had never cleaned a race. I finally cleaned an Italian Cup Sprint the week before World Championships, which was a huge boost for my shooting confidence.
During the Individual, I felt like I couldn’t miss my targets. I was very careful and deliberate in the range, taking a little extra time to nail my set up. Once I was confident it couldn’t be better, I focused on having a smooth trigger squeeze. During the second stage I missed a single target, which actually shocked me. The shot looked good, felt good, and I had followed through.
Halfway through the fourth (penultimate) loop I skied under a jumbotron and heard the announcer mention the “surprising leader of the race so far… American Susan Dunklee.” Hearing that sent a jarring shock of adrenaline into my system and my heart jumped into my throat. I had known I was having a good race, but I hadn’t dreamed that I might be leading! All I could do at that point was put all my focus into climbing the hill ahead of me. I hoped my head would clear by the time I arrived in the shooting range. Thinking back, I don’t really member what was going thru my head during the last standing shooting. I remember feeling completely relaxed and all 5 targets turned white. It was incredible!
The work wasn’t done. Skiing was very challenging, especially in the later loops. Warm temperatures over the past several days had created lots of deep, slushy snow and my legs felt like toast. On the last loop, all our coaches and staff were yelling that I was in medal contention. The crowd was roaring too, and I felt blasted by a tunnel of sound with no place to escape. I tried to ski faster, but I couldn’t find my highest gear. It still ended up being the race of my life.
I smiled up at the crowd from the finishing pen and they went crazy. It surprised me to see them so excited. They seem to like seeing the Americans do well.
It was really cool to hear how many people had been watching the races live from back home. Apparently my little cousin Camerin went to school after watching and spent show-and-tell explaining skiing and shooting to her friends. I was psyched to hear about that.
The race didn’t really sink in for me until I got off the awards stage. My teammates, my parents, and all our staff were there. Everybody was so excited and it was very special to share that moment with them. We had pictures and hugs all around.
A couple of months ago, our coach Jonne promised the women’s team that if any one of us placed in the top 10 on a World Cup then we could all dye his hair any color we wanted. We went searching for cool colors…