RUHPOLDING, Germany – Susan Dunklee started today’s World Championship 15 k individual race with bib number one, and she wasn’t too happy about it at the time.
In the sprint, the American had started dead last, almost an hour after the first woman. Today, she was looking forward to being seeded in group one and skiing the whole race with other top athletes.
“I thought for this race, ‘yes, I’m going to be in the early seed,’” she told FasterSkier at the finish line. “And then I look at the start list and I’m bib one, and the stress level goes up a few degrees.”
For a World Cup rookie, Dunklee handled that stress with aplomb. It was almost a given that she would initially cross the line in first place, but Dunklee turned a few heads with just how much time she spent in the lead today.
After cleaning the first stage, the Vermont native was in front; it took until bib 26, Marie Laure Brunet of France, for her to be unseated at that first major checkpoint.
Dunklee missed a shot in the second stage and received the one-minute time penalty that is replaces the penalty loop in this format, but then cleaned in the third, which once more put her in the lead until Norway’s Tora Berger cleaned with bib 21.
It wasn’t a position Dunklee was expecting to be in.
“I didn’t know how well I was doing until maybe my fourth loop,” she said. “Out on the far back hill you go by one of the jumbotrons and they were saying, ‘surprising leader of the race so far, Susan Dunklee,’ and my heart jumped up into my throat. I didn’t know what to do!”
But today, managing stress was her forte. Before the start, she had told herself that leading things off would likely gain her a few free seconds because the course wouldn’t be as “chopped up” as for the later competitors.
And on course, once she realized that she had a serious chance for a medal, she focused on the familiar.
“I just kept putting one foot in front of the other,” she said.
Dunklee cleaned her final stage and headed back out on the course, racing for what she now knew was likely a bronze medal. But she was exhausted, and couldn’t quite keep up her pace.
“I was so tired today, in my legs,” she said, noting that this is a longer, more race-intensive series than most. “And it’s been really slow, sloppy snow the last week, and that tired you out. I was trying to turn it over, but the top gear was missing today.”
It’s scary to think what her top gear could be: in this field which includes all of the world’s best biathletes, Dunklee’s ski time was the 12th-fastest. She finally landed fifth, just seven seconds behind third-place Helena Ekholm of Sweden; Berger cruised to a 56-second win over Brunet, and Marie Dorin Habert of France placed fourth.
But neither Dunklee nor any other member of the U.S. Biathlon staff were wondering what might have been if she had skied seven seconds faster. They were busy celebrating the best finish for a U.S. woman at World Championships, ever, and trying to process the fact that it came from an athlete who didn’t pick up shooting until after college and only raced her first World Cup this fall.
“I don’t know if I can describe this in English, but I am pumped,” women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen told FasterSkier. “Throughout the season we’ve seen the potential that Susan has, and already we talked in Antholz and I said that with the season now, it’s been a good one. And it even got better!”
High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler offered this up as his first reaction: “Holy mother, that was fun!”
Dunklee agreed, saying that while she wasn’t exactly expecting this performance, at the same time she’d known it was possible.
“I really believe that I’m capable of being up there, and I’ve known that for the last half a season or so,” she said. “It was just a matter of making all the shots come on a good day with good skiing. The individual is a race where anybody can have a good day if they shoot well, and I knew that included me.”
Eisenbichler said that he’d had confidence in his athlete based on her performances earlier this season, but that didn’t diminish her accomplishment.
“You saw a lot of penalties for the best people out there,” he said, referencing the fact that sprint champion Magdalena Neuner and pursuit champion Darya Domracheva collected six penalties apiece. “It was not easy to do so well today. So I’m really proud of Susan.”
Dunklee’s single penalty matched the accuracy of the four veterans in front of her, all of whom already owned Olympic or World Championship medals. It also represented the best four-stage shooting race of her career.
“I really think I came this close to cleaning, too,” she said. “I took that last shot in that first standing stage and it felt like a hit, it looked like a hit, the follow-through was there. So I think it was pretty close.”
Dunklee hadn’t fought for a win in a major competition since her time at Dartmouth College, where she was a several-time NCAA All-American. And she said that coming from college skiing to biathlon wasn’t something that other athletes should rule out.
“You have to have ski talent, for one, but for shooting you just have to be willing to devote some serious years to it,” she said. “And I think there’s a lot of people who would be capable of getting [to this level] from the States. We’ve got hope.”
Some people might say that trying to master a completely new sport at age 22 was crazy, but for Dunklee, it has been just right.
“If anyone wants to do the most challenging sport out there, I’d say this is it because the mental challenge of shooting is a totally different type of challenge than skiing,” she explained – and said it like that was a plus. “Just trying to master two things at a time, like that, there’s just nothing else quite comparable.”
Disclaimer: the author and Dunklee were teammates at Dartmouth College and on the Craftsbury Green Racing Project.