The eight North American women in Friday night’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay at Biathlon World Championships had a pretty good sense of what they wanted to accomplish.
For the Americans: top six, although they’d welcome any improvement on last year’s 11th place. For the Canadians, team veteran Zina Kocher wrote in an email that they were shooting for top eight in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic.
With 24 teams to contend with, each team set out on its own mission. Canada’s Rosanna Crawford had the better luck of the scramble legs, hanging in the top 20 for the first of three loops then rising to 12th by the exchange after using three spare rounds.
Annelies Cook worked throughout the first leg to get the Americans into the mix, using five spare rounds and tagging off to second-leg skier Sara Studebaker in 20th. Studebaker brought the team to 18th with one spare, and third-leg Susan Dunklee shot clean for her first time in a World Cup race to lift the U.S. to 11th.
From that point on, anything rookie Hannah Dreissigacker could achieve in her first World Championships was essentially bonus. All three of her teammates – Cook, Studebaker and Dunklee – were on last year’s 11th-place squad (with Lanny Barnes instead of Dreissigacker) and many felt they had a better day back then (with no penalties and nine spare rounds).
Dreissigacker, 26, held her own despite a penalty and three spare rounds on her prone and using another spare in the standing. Once again, she anchored the team to 11th, and they finished with one penalty and 10 spares, 3:04.5 minutes behind the Norwegian winners. (Note: The U.S. originally finished 12th, but Romania was disqualified for “deviating from the marked trail, or skiing a wrong trail, or skiing the course loops in a wrong sequence or in the wrong direction,” according to Real Biathlon.)
The Canadians came in 10.7 seconds after the Americans in 12th with 13 spare rounds and one penalty by Kocher on the seventh of eight stages. Kocher used three spare rounds on that prone and later cleaned her standing.
“It’s an ok result, but nothing amazing,” Kocher, 30, wrote in an email. “We have more potential than what we have been showing in the relays this year, but we really need to use less spares as an entire team.”
As for the penalties, they simply can’t happen, she explained. Kocher wrote she has been struggling with shooting in general this season, but was particularly frustrated with her prone. She regrouped by relaxing on the uphill during the next 2-kilometer loop and decided to switch up her typical right-to-left shooting order.
“I told myself each bull that I was aiming on before I shot ,” she recalled. “OK middle, now echo, delta, bravo, alpha.”
Kocher also remembered the nickname her team gave her.
“Today I found out that the staff named me Merida from the [Pixar] movie Brave,” she wrote. “So I also jokingly told myself ok Merida get it together and hit the center!”
Also disappointed with her prone, Dreissigacker focused on the positives.
“I feel like I let the team down a little bit by getting a penalty loop, but I’m pretty happy with standing, and I am thankful for having great teammates who don’t blame me at all!” she wrote. “I think that we were all hoping to do better, and we know that we can do better. … So to be 11th on a not-so-good day is a good. But we definitely all want more.”
After racing the third leg last year, Cook felt the pressure of scrambling. More confident in her prone shooting, she was taken aback with two initial misses and took some time reloading the two extra rounds.
“I have been struggling with standing shooting and so of course you hope that it will turn around and in that heartbreaking biathlon way,” she added. “I missed three, using extra rounds to clean. It’s the most important to clean in the end, but with such a close race, every second you spend on the range counts and that is frustrating.”
After that, Cook simply put her “head down and just suffered as much as I could possibly suffer to make up as much time as I could,” she wrote. “I think it is the hardest for me when I feel like I really want to bring my team into a good position and then responsible when it doesn’t go really well. So, I am bummed with myself but I gave it everything and I am so, so proud of the hard work and awesome races that the rest of the girls did.
“Susan killed it, Sara was super solid and Hannah did great for her first world Championships,” she added. “We are still ahead of where we were last year, it’s just that the potential is so tantalizing!”
Studebaker as the second leg described the difficultly of the 2 k course, one which doesn’t allow much rest. She went out on the first lap alone, which made it even harder, but did her best to focus.
“I came in pretty hard to prone, so had to take an extra second to calm down,” Studebaker wrote. There, she used one spare round and went on to clean the standing.
“Shooting well moved me closer to a big group of people, and when I tagged off to Susan we were in 18th place, but with a group of about five other teams,” she added. “I knew being close to other skiers would help Susan and that, with the way she’s been skiing this week, she would be able to move us up a bunch.”
She was right, as Dunklee raced to the second-fastest course time on the third leg after eventual winner Synnøve Solemdal (NOR). Dunklee, who turned 27 on Wednesday, also cleaned and ranked second for range time.
And she did so with a broom end for a rifle stock. After crashing on the last lap of Wednesday’s 15 k individual (where Dunklee still managed to pull off 15th), Dunklee sought a quick repair for her broken stock – the part of the gun that wedges against the shooter’s shoulder. Anschütz, a German firearms company, helped her do so by replacing the end of the butt plate with a new piece of wood: the end of a broom handle.
“Before the race I was joking around that maybe the broom part would help me ‘clean’ more often and it actually did,” Dunklee wrote. “I had my first career clean World Cup race. These championships went very well for me. … 11th ties our result from World Champs last year and is a solid result. The good thing is our expectations are a lot higher now so were and still are hungry to do better.”
The first Canadian out of the start, Crawford wrote that the first lap was relaxed, but she was still pretty overwhelmed to enter the stadium with 20 teams and a crowd of 27,000 watching.
“My second loop was pretty awesome, I left about 15 seconds back from the leaders and was able to catch right back up to the group before standing shooting,” Crawford wrote.
With the third-fastest ski time on her leg, she was happy to see some improvement with her speed. Clean shooting is always the goal in a relay, she explained, adding that she used too many spares (two prone and one standing).
“I really wanted to tag off in the top 10 and no more than 30 seconds from the leader, so I was happy with how my leg of the relay went!” she wrote. “I think we are content with today’s performance, but like we have said after every relay we know we are capable of so much more. Top 10 has been our goal all season. So we have one more relay in Sochi to try and make that come true!”
Megan Heinicke brought the team to 13th after cleaning her prone and using three spares on the standing. The second leg, she was the sixth fastest on her first loop of and ranked fifth in the range for time spent in prone. Heinicke tagged to 21-year-old Audrey Vaillancourt, who used one spare on her prone and three on the standing to put the team in 14th.
“I got a bit nervous on the third spare, but finally did not have to do a penalty loop,” Vaillancourt wrote. “Those were my first World Champs, so it has really been a great experience for me. I learned a lot and was so glad to be a part of such a huge event! We also have a great team that sticks together, which makes it even better.”
While Kocher wasn’t pleased with her personal performance at World Championships so far, she felt Friday was an improvement.
“I finally felt good skiing today however today was my last race,” she wrote. “Plus I just really struggled with my shooting performance on race day. It was definitely not what I was aiming to achieve here. I got a bit sick before [World Championships] and this could have affected my ski speed as well.
“But in reality, although WCHS was the main goal this season, it’s really the Olympic year in the big picture, and this was a tester year,” she added. “At the end of the season we will have a chance to analyze and see what we need to focus on or change for 2014.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.