RUHPOLDING, Germany – Three members of the U.S. women’s biathlon team knew before they even started their races on Wednesday was going to be a good day at World Championships.
As Lanny Barnes was waiting to start her four-stage, 15 k individual race, she heard over the loudspeaker that teammate Susan Dunklee was finishing – and that she was in the lead, almost guaranteed a top-five finish or maybe even a medal.
“Before I started I saw Susan doing well and that inspired me, so it was a fun day,” said Barnes, who raced to 37th place.
Teammate Sara Studebaker had started earlier, and said that she, too, got a boost from Dunklee’s eventual fifth-place finish. The two were college teammates and duked it out in a sprint finish for a carnival win in 2007; in that case, Studebaker won by a toe-slide.
“She had shot three times when I started, I think,” Studebaker told FasterSkier after the race. “Susan’s a pretty new biathlete, and to see her do so well – I mean, she’s obviously skiing insanely right now, but to see her do so well and then start, it’s like, ‘well, if she can shoot 19 out of 20, then I can have a good day.’”
Studebaker finished 38th, exactly five seconds behind Barnes, although she had three penalties to Barnes’ one. It was the best result of the Championships for both, but neither woman was entirely thrilled; strong past performances had them hoping for far more than just scoring World Cup points. Nevertheless, each was pleased to have improved from the sprint this weekend.
For Barnes, ski speed was an issue. After placing 78th in the sprint she had told FasterSkier that after living at altitude in Durango, Colorado and racing at altitude in Canmore, Alberta before coming to Germany, she was having trouble adjusting to the lower elevation.
That wasn’t entirely remedied on Wednesday, although Barnes did feel a bit better.
“In Canmore, I just felt phenomenal and like I was in complete control of my skiing,” she said. “Skiing there was a lot better than here so far. So I was really hoping that I’d feel the same way here that I did there, but I guess that’s how it goes sometimes. [Wednesday] was tons better than the sprint for sure – it’s getting there. Hopefully by the relay I’ll feel perfect.”
With her single penalty in a race where only three competitors shot clean, Barnes was on track for a good result. At the end of the fourth shooting stage, she was ranked 28th, and the U.S. coaches were hopeful that she could stay in the top thirty.
High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler interrupted an interview at the finish line to radio out to staff on the course.
“Keep her fighting,” he said as Barnes began to slip back through the ranks. “Five seconds to the top 30. Keep her fighting.”
Barnes wished that she could have, but thanks to her late bib (89), the course was developing deep ruts and slush that made it even more difficult for her to overcome the challenge of low elevation.
“The conditions got significantly worse each loop,” Barnes said. “It seemed like it was a real struggle on that last loop – especially in between the hills, it got so deep. The tracks kind of deteriorated, but we had great skis. So I just to tried to keep going through those sections without pushing too hard and getting bogged down – it was tough.”
More than the skiing, though, Barnes wished she could take back her single miss. The sharpshooter said she’d come close to cleaning, which would have landed her 21st.
“Really disappointed in that one miss,” she said. “It’s a thing where I hit my first four and got a little bit too confident, and I took the last one a little bit too quickly. It was so close, but that’s how it works sometimes”
Barnes was the last U.S. skier named to this team, on the merits of her podium finish at the IBU Cup series in Canmore. Considering that she hadn’t raced a World Cup since the opener in Oestersund, Sweden, Barnes said she’d take the result.
“It was a good fight,” she said. “I wish I had a little bit more in me, just to be able to fight a little bit more. But it was fun – it was definitely a good experience to be out here, and just a blessing to even have this opportunity.”
Studebaker, too was less than thrilled with her skiing; after strong results last year including 17th at World Championships in this same race, she hasn’t been able to find the same speed in 2012.
“I feel like I went into this race knowing where my skiing is right now,” she told FasterSkier. “I had a good shooting race on Sunday, so I thought that if I could shoot well I could do well in this race. But overall I’m really looking forward to the relay, which will be awesome, and then going to Khanty-Mansiysk [Russia, for the final World Cups] and hopefully have a good end to the season. I’m ready to go back to the drawing board for next season, and find out why I’m not as fast.”
Studebaker started 30 seconds in front of teammate Annelies Cook, and they were aware of each other’s position throughout the entire race.
“There are a lot of turns on the course, so I could see her for most of the race behind me,” Studebaker said of Cook. “Then she caught up to me on the fourth loop, so I was able to pace off of her – but she kind of took off on the last loop.”
Cook, too, was able to use their close starting positions as an advantage.
“It was fun having her right there for me. It gave me something to think about.”
Cook had the 33rd-fastest ski time on Wednesday, but was undone by six shooting errors, which in this format equate to six minutes of added time. She finished 66th, a few spots lower than her 62nd-place sprint effort. But just as Studebaker had gone into the race realistic about her skiing abilities, Cook had gone in determined to enjoy herself and make the most of the start, regardless of what happened.
“I thought, ‘you know, this is awesome,’” she said. “I’d been sitting in my hotel room for days, so I was ready to ski and be outside. I was just really happy and I felt good skiing. But I was thought, what happens on the range happens on the range. It could go well, but if I mess it up I’m still going to go out and ski. And I did mess it up, but I just tried to have the best race anyway. And I had a lot of fun.”
Cook called her misses “a bummer,” but like the other two, she was able to find happiness in Dunklee’s performance. Cook and Barnes, along with the national team coaches and staff, attended the medals ceremony in downtown Ruhpolding that evening, where Dunklee appeared onstage with the rest of the top six competitors.
“I saw the big screen when she cleaned the last stage, I was like, ‘fuck yeah!’” Cook had said at the finish line.
“I think we all knew with Susan, it was like she was a bomb ready to go off,” Studebaker had agreed.
“As soon as she hits her targets….” she trailed off into laughter.