JERICHO, Vt. – It’s not easy having a target on your back. Ask Hannah Dreissigacker, who made the US Biathlon A-team this year at age 26, just a year after fully committing to the sport. A member of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, which her parents founded, Dreissigacker previously dabbled in both biathlon and cross-country skiing, racing whenever she could and shooting on the side.
This season heading into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, she’s going to be one of the U.S. women to watch.
Not completely accustomed to all the attention, Dreissigacker was showered with hugs and congratulations after Saturday’s opening race at the North American Biathlon Rollerski Championships. She won the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint by 31 seconds – no small feat for a relative newcomer. Sure, she’s raced International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cups and World Championships, but Dreissigacker was now one step closer to securing a trip to the US Biathlon (USBA) November camp in Sweden, where World Cup starts will be dolled out. Athletes that do well there could represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
But let’s not get too far ahead. Dreissigacker said the step-by-step qualification system – which starts with rollerski trials in Jericho and two more in October in Midway, Utah – was a “pretty fair” system. Top skiers between the four races qualify for the Sweden camp and will shoot for the World Cup from there.
“It’s not like you win this and you go to the Olympics,” Dreissigacker said. “You have to do well enough in the rollerski races in the summer, but you have to do well in the winter, too.”
Despite several chances to prove herself worthy of the USBA’s standards, the Vermont native found herself a little nervous on Saturday, then even more so before Sunday’s 10 k pursuit. She was given a 30-second head start – not a ton of time when you’ve got Canadian Olympic team member Rosanna Crawford and the top-ranked U.S. woman, Susan Dunklee, on your heels.
“I wasn’t nervous until just little bit before for the race and then suddenly I was starting to get that feeling of having people behind you,” Dreissigacker said. “That’s what makes a real biathlon race. With the shooting aspect, there’s so much potential to move around so that’s what makes it fun.”
A day after hitting 7 of 10 targets on a windy morning at the Ethan Allen Firing Range, Dreissigacker missed seven out of 20 in the pursuit, one in the first prone and two in each stage thereafter, to finish second to Crawford.
On the first of five laps, Crawford and Dunklee entered the range just as Dreissigacker was leaving. Crawford, 25, gradually closed the gap before taking the lead the last time around. One of two women on Biathlon Canada’s national team, she won in 31:14, a minute and 12 seconds ahead of Dreissigacker. Dunklee struggled with shooting, missing two on the first prone then four on the first standing before finishing fifth with eight penalties (2-0-4-2).
Meanwhile, Crawford cleaned all but the second prone for 19-for-20 shooting. She skied one too many penalty loops when she didn’t realize she cleaned the first prone.
“I thought I had missed my last shot, but turns out it was a really slow split,” she explained. “I didn’t hear them tell me it went down until I was already in the penalty loop and even then I wasn’t sure what they were saying.”
She finished the loop and headed back out, not thinking too much of it. Fortunately for Crawford, the races had little implications: she’d already prequalified for Sochi and was simply measuring her progress. The day before, she’d finished second to Dreissigacker after missing three on the prone (3-0). Her first lap on Saturday had been slower than some of the U.S. women’s, so she wanted to push harder from start to finish and see if she could hang in for the duration.
It ended up working out both days, even after an intense training block culminating in Jericho.
“It’s been a tough couple weeks leading into these races so I’m glad I’m not totally dead on the skis,” Crawford said. “It was a good chance for me to work on a few things, like pushing my lap times and shooting a bit faster standing.”
Slightly disappointed with her prone shooting while being patient with her new stock, Crawford picked up some tips from a Norwegian with a Master’s degree in dry firing, who presented at the Ethan Allen military base on Saturday night.
“It was an interesting talk and reminded of a few things I used to do during the race season that really helped lead to some good shooting,” she explained. “I shot really slow [in Sunday’s] prone, and I was pretty happy to come off it with only 1 miss!”
Starting seventh and 1:24 behind Dreissigacker, Tracy Barnes (Twin Biathletes) rose to third with three penalties (2-0-1-0), 1:31 behind Crawford. She and her twin sister Lanny, a USBA B-team member who improved from 11th in the sprint to seventh, both cleaned the second prone in the pursuit.
Last year, Lanny swept both races in Jericho, but the two have been recovering from compartment-syndrome surgery since February, when a Colorado Springs doctor made incisions in their leg muscles to relieve pressure.
“Physically my legs are feeling better than they have in years,” Tracy wrote in an email. “I was disappointed in my result during the sprint, but not surprised that I might be a little further back than I wanted to be.”
On Saturday, she missed three prones and cleaned the standing; Lanny had one penalty in the prone and three in the standing.
“Lanny and I both knew that training had been a little slow coming into this because of our surgery and we wouldn’t be where we were normally,” she explained. “We just wanted to get back into racing and see where we were at and go from there. My game plan for the pursuit was just picking people off. There’s always an opportunity for that in a pursuit, which makes the race so much fun.”
She also spent quite a bit of time on course with her sister: one lap in the sprint and several in the pursuit.
“I love being able to do that,” Tracy wrote. “It makes me more relaxed. … We like to rumble against each other and push each other in training and racing so it makes it a blast.”
A member of Canada’s World Cup team, Audrey Vaillancourt missed just one shot on the day (0-0-1-0) for fourth in the pursuit, up from 10th in the sprint. USBA A-team members Sara Studebaker and Annelies Cook finished sixth and eighth, respectively. Canadian Claude Godbout (Courcelette) was ninth, and Biathlon Canada’s Megan Imrie placed 10th.
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.