It’s not the Susan Dunklee didn’t believe in herself; she totally did. And on her 27th birthday? Anything could happen.
But a year ago at Biathlon World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, the US Biathlon A-team member had what she called the race of her life, placing fifth in the 15-kilometer individual race.
“I wasn’t sure if I could repeat that sort of magic this year,” Dunklee wrote in an email on Wednesday, her birthday, after this year’s 15 k individual at World Championships in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic.
She didn’t get off to a perfect start with one miss on the first prone. But another miss on the second prone and a crash on the last lap, which broke her custom-made rifle stock, didn’t derail Dunkee, either. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) skier finished 15th, 3:30.3 behind Norwegian winner Tora Berger.
“The Individual is a very long race and a lot can happen,” Dunklee wrote. “I know from past races that missing one target in an early stage does not take you out of the race. My shooting felt on tonight and I don’t think my prone misses were very far out.”
Conditions weren’t easy with snow falling heavily before the race. It continued to fall throughout and complicate things, paired with a strong crosswind in the range that made shooting especially tough.
Dunklee didn’t let it phase her, hanging with Russian Olga Zaitseva, who lapped through as she started.
“I know she is a fast skier so I took a ride with her and we skied most of three laps around each other,” Dunklee wrote.
Zaitseva went on to place sixth, and while she entered the stadium for the last time, Dunklee heard she was just seconds out of the top six on her final lap.
“I pushed for every second in the transitions,” Dunklee explained. “I took the big downhill a little too aggressively and fell, breaking my rifle stock … The rest of the loop I fought as hard as I could to gain some of the time back and was psyched to get top 15, even with a broken stock.”
The result was her second-best in an individual race at the World Cup level, and Dunklee said she celebrated with cake and ice cream provided by her teammates. Hannah Dreissigacker and Annelies Cook also performed “Happy Birthday” for her with a concertina and guitar.
As for her stock, the part of a gun that rests on the shoulder, Dunklee said she’s looking for a quick fix.
“There are a handful of craftsmen who specialized in biathlon stock and most are based in Europe,” she explained. “Between building, fitting, and shipping a new stock, it can take several weeks to arrive. For now I am hoping to get a quick repair job on mine so I can use it in the relay [on Friday]. Not sure what the long term prognosis is.”
Focusing on the positive, she remembered hearing over the loudspeaker midway through her race that teammate Sara Studebaker, who started ahead of her, had only missed one target.
“I knew team USA was having a good day,” Dunklee wrote after qualifying for the 2014 Sochi Olympics with her 15th-place result.
Studebaker finished 27th with one miss on the final stage, 4:52.2 behind the winner. Pleased with her season best, Studebaker was also happy to improve by nearly 40 spots since placing 65th in the sprint.
“I was definitely eager to put the Sprint race behind me,” she wrote. “Shooting clean through three stages, I was just trying to stay relaxed. … Coming into the last standing, my legs were really tired and shaky, so I was happy to come away with only one miss!”
After starting 30th, Studebaker heard she was sixth on the last lap.
“I knew there were lots of top athletes still to come so I had to keep pushing,” she wrote. “I feel really good about the result today. I had a rough start to these Championships, so shooting so well and having my best result of the season so far was great.”
About a minute further back, Cook placed 38th (+6:01.6) with four misses for a personal-best individual result at World Championships. Heading into the race, she prepared herself for slow snow and windy conditions.
“These kind of conditions intimidate me a bit so I wanted to make sure that I stayed focused and positive skiing because we all have to suffer through it together,” Cook wrote.
Fortunately, she discovered her skis were “super super super fast. The kind of skis you only get once in a while and I think that put me into such an awesome head space because I knew that whatever effort I put it, my skis were going to help me out so much.”
After cleaning the first stage, she went on to miss three in the first standing.
“I knew right away there was no chance for a top result,” Cook wrote. “But I wanted to stay positive and focused because with no more mistakes, I could still have a pretty good day.”
She did, skiing aggressively to catch people and missing just one additional target on the final stage.
“I am happy with the day and I am bummed about the one shooting stage,” she wrote. “But it’s biathlon.”
Thirty seconds outside the top 50, Dreissigacker placed 56th with four misses in her first World Championships.
Canada’s Crawford Goes the Distance
Leading the way for Canada in her debut World Cup, 24-year-old Rosanna Crawford placed 17th for her best distance result.
With just one miss on the first standing, Crawford picked up the pace throughout her race, clocking the fastest range times on both standing stages. Ultimately, she ranked third in range time with 19-for-20 shooting, a milestone she was pleased with.
“Individuals have never been my strong point so it was nice to have a good skiing and shooting day,” Crawford wrote. “My goals for this race was to ski tactically well and hit 90%. I reached both of those goals so I am pretty happy with this race.”
Minding the wind while keeping her rhythm, she wrote that getting lane 30 (near a wall) for both standing bouts was helpful.
“After leaving the range for my last loop I am pretty sure I had a great big grin on my face!” Crawford wrote. “I think this is the best I have ever shot in a 20-shot race on the World Cup. A lot of athletes usually slow down their shooting for an individual because those shots are so much more important. But I feel it is best for me to stick to my rhythm, this paid off with the 3rd fastest range time today!”
Teammate Megan Heinicke placed 50th (+7:38.1) with two misses on each of the prone stages. Zina Kocher finished another 4.9 seconds back in 52nd with six penalties. Audrey Vaillancourt placed 76th for Canada in her first World Championships with three misses on the first stage and four total.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.