As Gabriela Soukalova picked up her second win of the weekend and third of the season in the 10 k pursuit in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, the American biathlon squad was not quite as happy with their performances.
After Susan Dunklee and Annelies Cook both notched season-best performances in Sochi the previous weekend, they hoped to stay on a roll when the World Cup moved from the Black Sea to Siberia.
In the sprint, the pair finished 28th and 36th: solid, good efforts, but nothing special given their recent results. Going into today’s pursuit, Dunklee said that she was hoping to move up enough to qualify for Sunday’s mass start, which takes only thirty women.
But things quickly went south. She missed two shots in her first prone stage, dropping out of the top 30. Then she failed to hit a single target on the second stage.
“As the race went on I had to constantly create new goals for myself to stay in the race,” she wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “It was a sad downhill progression. At first I wanted to beat my bib number and maybe event earn a spot in tomorrow’s mass start. Next I refocused on making a top 40 and some World Cup points. Midway through the race disaster struck and I dirtied a stage in spite of calm conditions. By the end, my struggle was to not get lapped.”
If a competitor doesn’t finish shooting their final stage before the leaders hit the finishing stretch, they are pulled from the competition. As Dunklee pulled into the range for the final time, she knew that Soukalova, who was trying her hardest to stay in front of a hard-charging Olga Vilukhina or Russia, were nearing the finish. She needed to get out of there.
“I shot my last clip as fast as I could and only missed one,” Dunklee wrote.
That should have been, well, not exactly cause for celebration, but maybe a small victory: despite the earlier errors, when she was under the most pressure, Dunklee pulled through. But her travails weren’t over yet.
“The icing on the cake of my epic fail today was when my coach told me afterwards that I cross fired on that last stage and incurred several more minutes of penalties,” she wrote.
Two minutes, to be exact, is the amount of time added for each penalty loop that an athlete fails to complete, and firing on the wrong target once meant that Dunklee had done one penalty loop when she should have done two. The extra time that left her in 58th place out of 58 starters when the results came out – not 50th place, where she had been when she finished.
“The bright side is that I concentrated all my biggest mistakes of the season into a single race,” she joked.
While Cook did not have anywhere near the bad day, or the eleven penalties, that Dunklee experienced, she, too, was left frustrated. Clean through three stages, she had climbed all the way up to 17th place, on track for the fourth top-20 of her career. But it proved to be too much, too fast, and Cook imploded on the range in the final stage.
“I just wanted to do well so badly and I knew that clean shooting would be my ticket,” she explained. “But, my brain got in the way. People who have never sat there on their last stage, with three clean shootings, will never understand what it is like – but everyone who has knows the feeling of messing it up or pulling through beautifully. It is a learning process that you have to go through a few times and start to find ways to manage your brain versus what your body knows how to do.”
Four penalties in that last stage sent Cook round and round the penalty loop, and she left the range in 35th place. Tired from the extra 600 meters of skiing and also discouraged, the final lap of skiing was her slowest and she was unable to gain any places.
“I think normally, I would be happy for this result and how I did on average – it was not a bad day overall,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I felt good skiing and 80% shooting is a good to average day. But when you go from 36th to 17th and back to 35th in one shooting stage, it hurts inside a bit, especially when you want to finish on a high note.”
Without any spectacular results in the pursuit, neither Dunklee nor Cook made it onto the start list for the mass start. That meant that this was their last World Cup race of the season.
It was a pretty bittersweet way to finish, Cook said.
“Today was a classic biathlon day,” she wrote. “So painful and heartbreaking and good all at the same time. It’s hard to separate your feelings when you know you are having a good day and then you want something so badly, that you just mess it up… I have so much motivation to keep learning and getting better this summer.”
Despite her so-called “epic fail,” Dunklee said she was also leaving Russia with positive vibes.
“The week has been fun overall,” she wrote. “I have been hanging out a lot with athletes from different teams and practicing speaking German.”
Most of all, the Americans are relieved that after almost three months straight in Europe – they only take a small break for Christmas – they will finally be heading back to the Western Hemisphere for some time with family and friends.
“After almost five months in Europe [total], I’m psyched to be headed home soon!” Dunklee concluded.
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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.