It was a day of firsts in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint on the trails of Antholz, Italy.
For Anais Bescond of France, it was not only her first International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup victory of her career, but also her first podium.
For second place finisher Andrea Henkel of Germany, it was her first podium of the season.
For American Susan Dunklee who finished fourth, it was her career-best finish.
With near-perfect conditions in the Italian Dolomite mountains, the women skied three times around the 2.5 k loop, shooting prone at 2.5 k and standing at 5 k.
Norway’s 2013 World Champion and 2010 Olympic medalist, Tora Berger was an early front-runner. She started out conservatively, skiing the 22nd fastest time in the first lap, but after shooting clean in the prone and obtaining one penalty in the standing, Berger catapulted herself into the lead by skiing the fastest time in the third lap.
While she crossed the finish line in first, there were still 91 women left in the field of 105, and all of them were hungry for a spot on the podium.
Despite the strong field, Berger was able to hold her fist place position for a short time, as Franziska Preuss of Germany and Teja Gregorin of Slovenia were unable to topple the Norwegian biathlon queen.
Unfortunately for Berger, who eventually finished in sixth, American Susan Dunklee was on course. Coming off an less-than-satisfying week in Ruhpolding, Germany, Dunklee skied a strong first loop and cleaned prone, boosting her into second position. From there she continued improve her standing, shooting clean in the standing and garnering the fastest time in the race so far.
The 27-year-old and Vermont native crossed the finish line in first place to the cheers of the crowd, giving an exhausted, yet exuberant “yeah!” before collapsing to her knees. Topping Berger by 1.8 seconds, it was looking like an excellent day for Dunklee.
The crowd loved the American’s effort and cheered especially loud as she blew past them.
“At the finish, the crowd was cheering like crazy,” she wrote in an email. “I remember this from my 5th place at Ruhpolding a couple years ago too. They seem to get electrified when an underdog does well.”
Another crowd favorite, Bescond, was not far behind.
The Frenchwoman, whose previous best World Cup finish had been fourth in Oslo last year, held nothing back. She ripped out of the gate, clocking the fastest time for the first loop and cleaned prone.
She wasn’t quite as sharp in standing, obtaining one penalty.
“With one miss I thought it was not possible for the podium, but I gave my best,” Bescond said in an IBU press release.
It became apparent that her best was enough to top the rest of the field, and she crossed the line in first, 10.7 seconds ahead of Dunklee.
Looking at the leaderboard in disbelief, Bescond thought that the results were incorrect.
“I thought it was a mistake, but I was happy to see my name up there,” she said.
Starting just behind Bescond, was second place finisher Henkel. She skied a strong and efficient race as she pursued Bescond. With fast skis and a clean shooting record, Henkel was able to leave behind a lackluster season to finish second, 6.7 seconds behind Bescond.
A large part of Henkel’s success in the sprint was her ability to shoot cleanly.
“I know that it is important for me to hit all of the targets to be on the podium,” Henkel said in a press release. “Today it worked out and then all I was just fighting in the last loop.”
After Henkel there weren’t few were able to challenge for a position on the podium until Darya Domracheva of Belarus took the course.
Domracheva skied an incredibly fast race that was only hindered by the standing shooting, in which she received two penalties.
“I was very disappointed in my standing shooting; I think it was maybe too fast. But I am still happy to make the podium,” she told IBU.
Thursday’s results demonstrate that Dunklee is a force to contend with going into next month’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Her previous best World Cup finish was fifth, which she notched in an individual 15 k at the 2012 World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany. While she had been unable to match the result earlier this season, her best-ever finish shows what she’s capable of and where she’s planning on going.
“At the finish, the crowd was cheering like crazy. … They seem to get electrified when an underdog does well.” — Susan Dunklee, fourth in Antholz World Cup sprint
Not only today was a personal best for Dunklee, it was also the best World Cup result for a U.S. female biathlete since 1994. According to US Biathlon, in March 1994, Joan Smith finished fourth a World Cup sprint in Canmore, Alberta, Anna Sonnerup was second in a World Cup in the early ’90s, and Kari Swenson placed in the top four in the ’80s.
“I went into today feeling very relaxed and very confident,” Dunklee wrote. “Shooting had been fantastic the last couple days in practice and the ski times were coming down in the last few races. I was ready for a good result without wanting it too much.”
Despite achieving her career best finish, Dunklee was slightly disappointed to not be standing on the podium. However, she plans on using the result to help her in the future, writing, “Nothing could be more motivating than being half a second off.”
Looking forward to the remaining World Cup races in Antholz, Dunklee is excited to for Saturday’s pursuit. “[It] is going to be a blast,” she wrote. “I will be in a tight pack off the start with Andrea and Darya.”
Canadian Megan Heinicke wrote in an email that she was “super happy” to see Dunklee on the podium. “I know all of us fellow North Americans were cheering and are stoked for her!” she wrote.
The Canadian finished 46th in the sprint, qualifying for Saturday’s pursuit. She did her best to ski a clean focused race, but had trouble tapping into her explosive power.
“Overall I am still disappointed with the ski time,” Heinicke wrote. “I had expected to feel better today than I did, but there are some good things to take out of it.”
She cleaned her prone, then had two standing penalties.
“My main goal is to focus on the separate things that need to come together and to mentally ‘stay in the moment,’ ” the 25-year-old wrote about the next World Cup races and the upcoming Olympics. “I believe I have trained well and think being relaxed, confident and focused is the key to bringing everything together.”
American Sarah Studebaker was happy with placing 57th with two total penalties, one in each stage, coming off last weekend’s IBU Cup in Val Ridanna, Italy, which doubled as Olympic trials. She was officially named to her second Olympic team last Sunday.
“Not worrying about qualifying I was able to just race, which was nice,” Studebaker wrote. “I did not feel 100% today after trials, but it was exciting to make the pursuit and especially to ski better than before Christmas.”
“I truly believe we are the strongest and most professionally mannered biathlon team in US history. I am honored to be part of this group heading into Sochi.” — Susan Dunklee
The rest of the North American squad finished out of qualifying in the top 60, with Canadian Rosanna Crawford placing 68th, American Annelies Cook in 70th, and Canadians Megan Imrie and Zina Kocher finishing 73rd and 83rd, respectively.
The World Cup races in Antholz mark the last before the start of the Sochi Olympics. The fourth-place finish will give Dunklee confidence on the Russian course she finished seventh on last season.
“I truly believe we are the strongest and most professionally mannered biathlon team in US history,” Dunklee wrote. “I am honored to be part of this group heading into Sochi.”
Studebaker expressed similar sentiments about the American team.
“I am so excited to be a part of the Olympic team,” Studebaker wrote. “It’s great to be heading back to the Olympics and especially with such a great group of women. These races are really training for us and getting one more chance on Saturday is great. We definitely have work to do before Sochi, but things are going really well for our team and we’re all looking forward to seeing what we can do at the Olympics!”
– Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.