RUHPOLDING, Germany – With only Susan Dunklee qualified for Sunday’s mass start race, Saturday’s 4 x 6 k relay was the last race of World Championships for the rest of the U.S. women.
They wanted to end the Championships on a high note, but rather than set a tough results-based goal, their approach was more in line with the temporary pink hair dye they’d all used for the occasion: the Americans wanted to have fun, soak up the atmosphere, and do their very best.
“We hadn’t really talked about any specific goals, we just talked about wanting to go out there and do our best,” anchor Lanny Barnes told FasterSkier, although she added, “I think secretly we were all hoping for a top ten.”
Scramble leg Sara Studebaker said that if she’d had to pick a goal for results, it would have been based on a different metric.
“To finish better than your bib would always be awesome,” she said.
In the end, the U.S. did just that, placing 11th despite being seeded 14th based on relay results from the rest of the season. And that put them just ten seconds from the top ten.
Studebaker started things off by using two spares in prone and one in standing; things didn’t appear to be going well, as she sat in 20th and 16th after the two stages. But Studebaker, who has been frustrated with her skiing all week and even all season, was able to jet past a few competitors on the final two-kilometer loop and tag off in 13th, in a dead heat with Norway.
“I was happy with my race,” Studebaker said. “Shooting was not perfect today, but my last lap especially, I was really psyched to be able to pass a couple of people.”
She tagged to Susan Dunklee, who was fresh off an exhilarating fifth-place finish in the 15 k individual race. Dunklee’s shooting wasn’t perfect either – she used two spares in prone and three in standing.
“It was okay,” Dunklee said of her race. “I was hoping to hit some more targets, especially that last standing one. I think I started moving on too soon, and then I had to pick all those spares to get it. It was just sloppy.”
It was a far cry from the shooting she displayed in that fifth-place finish, where she had hit 19 of 20 targets. But with only a few years of biathlon experience, she had come into the race realistic about her ability to shoot well consistently.
“The shooting was not magical like it was the other day,” Dunklee said. “I mean, I’ve never had it like that before, so I was hoping for it to come back, but I am not entirely surprised that it didn’t. Skiing felt good today though, I felt really good on the uphills.”
Dunklee skied the eighth-fastest time of second-leg skiers, and her skiing was by far the best on the American team. When she tagged off to Annelies Cook, the U.S. was still in 13th.
Cook started an upward trajectory for the U.S. by shooting impeccably – she didn’t need any spares in prone, and gained a spot there, and then used just one in standing. Over the last loop, Cook attacked, passing the team from Poland and moving up another spot to 11th.
When Barnes took over, she did even better on the range, cleaning all of her targets with no spare rounds and having the fastest shooting times to boot.
After leaving the range for the last time, Barnes was just four seconds out of the top ten, and was determined to cross that threshold. But it didn’t work out.
“I had two right in front of me right at the end, and I started gaining on them on the first hill,” she explained. “But the right side was the only place that was hard and the Korean we were lapping got in between us. I was hupping her and hupping her and she didn’t move, and I went around in the deep stuff and they pulled away a little bit. And that was my move, you know? It foiled it.”
Still, Barnes didn’t have any regrets about the race and was happy to place 11th.
“It was kind of a bummer being that close to top ten, but it was fun,” she said. “It was a great team to be a part of. All those girls fought really hard, so it was a really great way to end the season. I really struggle in snow like this, and I was just happy to hit all my targets and gain a little bit on the last one.”
Studebaker was similarly pleased with where the team ended up.
“It’s a good result for where we all are,” she said. “It’s been kind of a tough championship for a lot of us. I’m really looking forward to going to Khantiy-Mansiysk, and it’s good to end the Championships with this relay, rather than the last one.”
The result improved on the team’s 13th-place relay finish from last season’s World Championships, and the U.S. is now ranked 11th in the Nations Cup standings. With only one weeked of World Cup racing remaining and a 700-point gap to close to Slovakia, it’s unlikely that they will move up, but they’ve already improved on their 15th-place spot from 2011.
“We keep getting further and further up,” Barnes said, satisfied. “It was better than the last relay, so we’ll definitely get there. It’s an awesome year and all the girls are doing so well. It’s nice to see that.”