RUHPOLDING, Germany – It’s never a good start to a relay when the leadoff skier tags off in tears.
Unfortunately for the U.S., that’s exactly what happened today at World Championships. Scramble leg Sara Studebaker suffered a minor implosion (although it was nothing compared to Canadian Zina Kocher’s on the next leg) in her standing stage and by the time she made it to the finish line, the U.S. was in 20th place of 27 teams.
To add insult to injury, Studebaker was tripped up in the uneven slush of the exchange zone and fell as she tagged off to Susan Dunklee, who after a slight tangle took off in her quest to gain ground.
“It was rough,” Studebaker said of the whole experience.
Studebaker is usually a strong scramble skier; in U.S. relays so far this year, she’s handed off in sixth place three separate times.
“it’s a bummer,” she said. “It’s definitely my worst relay [of the season], maybe ever, and it happened at World Championships, which sucks, but it happens – everyone has a day like that. Looking forward, we have a lot of races still to do.”
What happened? First one thing, then another. Early on in the mass start, Studebaker collided with another skier and fell.
“[It] happens in mass starts,” she said of the crash. “I ended up in the back of the pack, which was fine. I was really happy with how I handled it: I jumped right back up and caught a couple people, and shot prone fast and clean and felt really good, and skied well the second lap.”
Studebaker did clean her prone shooting, and sat in 12th – not what she was hoping for, but definitely something to work with. In standing however, things fell apart. She used all three spare rounds and still had to ski a penalty loop.
That’s the kind of performance that gets a sharpshooter like Studebaker to say it’s the worst relay of her life.
“I came in for standing and it just didn’t happen,” she said. “It was a total ‘that’s biathlon’ day for me.”
Like Kocher, Studebaker said that the afternoon sun was partially to blame for her penalties.
“In some ways I think this will be a really good learning experience for me looking towards the sprint and the pursuit, which are at the same time of day as this, because there was a lot of sun coming in,” she said. “It was different than when we zeroed. But I mean, I’m not going to blame my shooting completely on the sun!”
When Dunklee took over, she knew she had her work cut out for her, but she didn’t know why.
“I was out warming up so I had no idea,” she said of Studebaker’s shooting woes.
Instead, Dunklee had only one thing in mind: Kocher.
“The big aggressive thing was that I saw Zina a few seconds ahead of me and I had to go get her and catch a ride – that was the only thing that was going through my mind, honestly,” she laughed.
Dunklee was fairly ambivalent about her race; skiing with Kocher seemed to be the highlight. Her three spare rounds, she said, was neither great nor terrible.
“I sent off a shot standing that was just way too early, and my prone shot, I knew it was a bad shot when I was taking it,” she explained. “So it could have gone better, but that’s not that bad. I’ll save the best shooting for another day, I guess.”
Dunklee was able to gain four spots and take the Americans into 16th. The gradual improvements continued, with Tim Burke replicating Dunklee’s shooting and moving up to 14th. Anchor racer Lowell Bailey shot perfectly and the team ultimately placed 12th.
It was a strong result, given their first leg; both Dunklee and Bailey actually made up time on the leaders, while Burke lost about 30 seconds. Burke’s time was the sixth-fastest among third-leg skiers; his ski speed and Bailey’s clean shooting are indicators that the men are in good form for the rest of the Championships.
As for starting out at the back of the pack, Dunklee said that the most important thing was not to panic.
“You don’t have control over that stuff,” she said. “You just look at what you have control over, and try to work with where you are and what you’ve got.”