Thursday’s 15 k individual race in Sochi, Russia, had been a pretty good day for the U.S. women’s team: Susan Dunklee had placed seventh, a season-best, and Annelies Cook 14th for a career-best on the World Cup.
On the trails that will determine next year’s Olympic medalists, that felt good. So they might have had a little more confidence going into Saturday’s 7.5 k sprint.
Then again, maybe not.
“I didn’t know what to expect today after the individual,” Cook wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “We have this saying in our family, ‘biathlon giveth and biathlon taketh away’ so, I never really hedge my bets on anything. The only thing I did know was that our team generally has a positive attitude when conditions are challenging and not all the teams out there are like that.”
While Cook finished 18th for the third top-20 of both her career and the season, her consistency over the two days of racing was all the more remarkable since the races themselves were so drastically different.
While the courses had been fast on Thursday, they looked completely different a few days later. Wet snow and warm temperatures had already turned things slushy for the men’s race earlier in the afternoon, but by the time the women hit the trails there was more fresh snow to complicate things.
“There was dry new snow on top of wet slushy snow and it was just a struggle fest,” Cook said. “It was easily the most difficult course of the season. We were laughing about how you tried so hard to make it up those hills and then you would look at the ground beneath you and it was not moving at all. And the S-turn downhills were also more exciting than they needed to be.”
Then, there was the fog. The women’s race was actually delayed a half an hour, because as the women began to zero the fog became so sick that it was impossible to see the targets. For a little while, it was unclear whether the race would even be held. Then, the fog rolled out and things got back on track.
“When strange things like this happen, everyone relaxes a bit and it doesn’t seem as serious anymore, so I really wanted to race because it just felt like it would be an adventure no matter what,” Cook said. “But I will say that after the second loop on that course, I wasn’t really having fun anymore because it just hurt so much.”
The whole team seemed to make the most of the delay.
“It was great for me,” Dunklee wrote. “After laying on the wet mats to zero I was drenched and the delay provided enough extra time to change into warm dry clothes.”
Dunklee missed two shots, one in each stage, to finish 25th. Although it didn’t match her better result from Thursday’s race, she was plenty happy with how things had gone.
“My skiing shape felt great today- one of my better days of the season,” she said. “I was able to push further through the hurt. However it wasn’t my smartest pacing day and I believe I could do better with this same fitness level and effort. I will have a different race plan next time.”
She still had the 18th-fastest ski time of the day, and Cook, who shot one penalty, had the 16th. That put the pair 1:30 and 1:51 behind Magdalena Gwizdon of Poland, who shot clean to pick up the second victory of her career at a very opportune time.
Cook’s one missed shot came in the prone stage.
“One miss in prone is annoying, but maybe if I had hit all five then I would have had misses in standing,” she explained. “Who knows. I kept a larger aperture in my front sight for the fog that felt a lot different than my normal one and it felt strange in prone.”
Sara Studebaker rounded out the U.S. effort with two penalties to place 51st.
“In general, I’m not very happy with my form right now,” Studebaker told FasterSkier. “I’ve been struggling a little since World Champs to find my ski legs, and just haven’t been able to make it happen. That said, I was really happy with my effort today, and am really glad to have raced here in preparation for next year’s Olympics.”
All in all, it was the best week for the women’s team so far this season.
“It has been an awesome week of racing and I am proud to see the women executing the plan down to the last detail here on these really tough courses,” U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen wrote in an e-mail. “For sure their fitness is on a high level, being able to perform the way they have been these last couple of races, but on top of that they have really put in the effort of making this venue ‘our venue’ and trying things out to learn as much as possible for next year.”
Getting Ready for the Big Show
With only three women making the trip to Sochi, the team won’t be contesting Sunday’s 4 x 6 k relay. That makes the sprint their last chance to race on the courses before next year’s Olympics.
What’s their impression of things?
“Unlike many of our other venues I think all the different length loops have similar character,” Dunklee said. “They all favor skiers who like long brutal climbs and technical downhills. There are some athletes that don’t like that style, and there is some question about whether the downhill corners could safely handle big packs during the mass starts and pursuits. However, all the teams have seen the course and they have a year to adjust their training for these conditions. That aspect is fair.”
About those downhills: after several horrific crashes during the four races that have been held so far, athletes and coaches alike are wondering whether the courses will be changed at all before the Olympics. One important test will be Sunday’s relays, which will feature head-to-head racing at the World Cup level on the trails for the first time. Athlete after athlete had expressed concern of how a mass start field would negotiate the downhills.
So, Studebaker said, “We’re all a little unsure exactly how the courses will look next year… it will be interesting to see if there are any changes.”
She noted that in a few cases, that has already happened. For example, several downhill corners have gained some more banking to make them safer.
While some athletes – Martin Fourcade and Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, for example – have gone on record saying that the long uphills will work to their advantage, Studebaker is particularly happy with how the range is designed.
“The range is great, though, and the approach is really nice for me,” she said. “I like that there’s a nice downhill to recover but then some skiing before you actually shoot.”
And to mitigate some of her frustration about recent races, having a glimpse of these courses has given Studebaker something to focus on and work towards.
“Not being at my best right now has made me start to shift focus and look towards next year already,” she said. “I feel like I now know better what I need to work on, and we’ll be able to tailor our training with these big hills in mind!”
Besides the actual courses, the World Cups here have given the team the opportunity to test all manner of other things, from daily routines to ski preparation. By all accounts, that has gone well for the Americans, even though a lot of the rules and culture are far different than what they are used to encountering.
“I think our team will be fine in Sochi,” Cook said. “We are all pretty flexible and we have such a super and positive staff that we can handle whatever strange situations come our way.”
Already, their skis were better than some other teams; staff had gone to the venue to test during the FIS cross country World Cup, just as U.S. Ski Team waxer Randy Gibbs was present this weekend.
“We were really prepared,” Studebaker said. “We’ve had great skis, even though the conditions have been really slow and tough. It’s great knowing that we have things pretty well dialed already and gives our whole team a lot of confidence for next year. We can only improve on an already good thing, so I think that’s really positive.”
And as for the parts of the event that have been strangely organized, Studebaker suggested that race officials are serious about taking feedback and improving things for the future. For instance, British racer Amanda Lightfoot crashed badly in the individual race, and was immediately taken to a hospital without any of her coaches or team staff being informed.
“She was at the hospital 12 kilometers away without anyone who spoke English and no one really knew where she was,” Studebaker said. “So that was a pretty bad experience, but they’ve since talked to the organizers and let them know that they can’t just take athletes away like that unless it’s life-threatening or something.”
Studebaker also had a frustrating interaction with doping control, which snagged her for both pre-competition and post-competition testing, and hurried her in without letting her grab food or all of her warm-ups. But talking with other officials solved the problem.
“It’s just a learning curve with some things, and I have confidence that they will have things dialed next year.”
Kahkonen’s only complaint? The food.
“The only thing that could be a bit better is the nutrition, both at our village cafeteria and at the venue at the biathlon family club,” he said. “There’s just not quite enough for the athletes’ needs.”
Hopefully someone’s listening.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.