RUHPOLDING, Germany – For Susan Dunklee, the individual race in Ruhpolding carries a lot of memories. It was here two years ago that the American shocked everyone with a fifth-place finish at World Championships. That time, she had a single penalty in the second stage and ended up just seconds from the podium. It’s still her best finish ever.
So coming into the final shooting stage, with a single penalty, knowing that “I must have been in a pretty good position”: it was a familiar feeling.
“It was almost déjà vu: it was that second stage where I had missed one before,” Dunklee said.
But unlike at World Championships, she botched two shots and ended up 41st. Maybe that first time around, when she only had a few weeks of World Cup racing under her belt, she hadn’t internalized or understood the pressure complete.
In a sprint, you don’t want penalties because every second counts. But in an individual, the penalty for each missed shot is so huge that it matters just as much, albeit in a different way. Coming into the final shooting stage with zero or one penalties really does mean that you might have done it, whereas in a sprint you could easily still be out of the top ten if you ski poorly.
This time, it got to her head.
“I was thinking about it,” she admitted. “I was pretty disappointed with that last stage… [but] it’s good to be in positions when you can practice that, and be in that position with that pressure.”
Based on results alone, the individual is the format where Dunklee might be expected to turn in the best result in Sochi. She also placed seventh in this discipline at the pre-Olympic race in Sochi last season. But she doesn’t consider herself a medal favorite.
“Honestly, I think it’s the race that anybody has the best chance in,” she explained. “Because if anybody cleans, they can be up there. It doesn’t matter whether you’re near the top in ski speed, or just average. You can still be in the top ten.”
So getting reacquainted with the pressure of tough competition situations was a good thing to bring out of today’s race, even if the skiing didn’t go so well. She needs to settle into the pressure so that she can be one of those clean-shooting winners.
“I think very time you experience this you learn a little bit, and you move on, and it’s routine,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, make it routine.”
And while she wouldn’t say that the individual is the format where she’ll likely have her best race, she still admitted that it has her advantages: it’s not a complete mystery why she has done so well in this type of racing.
“I like it because it’s a race where I don’t have to feel so panicky and like ‘go go go,’ she said of the format, which is also the longest of all the races. “It’s not like every second counts in the same way as a sprint. I think that helps me relax for the shooting, and maybe that’s why I’ve done better. And you can really stretch out and ski big and relaxed. So that’s nice.”
Result That Don’t Count
Most people consider World Cup races to be a pretty big deal. But this time, this year? Not so much.
“This week and next week in Antholz, these are all practice, preparation for Sochi,” Dunklee explained. “These races are not important.”
What she meant was not that the team could write off the competitions: far from it, they must take them very seriously in their preparation for the upcoming Olympics (and her lesson about handling pressure fulfilled that exact purpose). But it’s not results they are focused on so much as experience, training, and feeling.
Even the World Cup rankings aren’t so important to them this season. The Olympics trump all that.
“They are not so concerned about collecting points,” U.S. head coach Per Nilsson said.
That turns out to be a good thing, as neither of the two U.S. women competing in today’s race had results they were thrilled about. With Dunklee’s three missed and six from Annelies Cook, it added up to a lot of extra penalty time.
And the skiing wasn’t perfect either. Dunklee, sometimes among the fastest skiers, had the 32nd-fastest time and three penalties to wind up 41st; she was 3:53 behind race winner Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, who had two minutes less penalty time. And Annelies Cook, no slouch in ski speed either, wound up 85th. Her penalty time couldn’t account for the full 7:57 between her and the winner. The gaps were bigger than they’d expect.
There may be reasons. Dunklee recently had a cold, and a stomach bug has also been going around the World Cup field. Plus, Dunklee said, the conditions did not suit her style of skiing: it was so icy that it was hard to V1, because pushing hard off a ski would make you slip.
“So I did a lot more V2-ing uphill than I ever have,” she explained. “I’m really good at long, gradual, grinding V1. V2 is a very different style for me and it’s hard.”
While everyone is preparing for the Games, Cook and Dunklee also have another added advantage over many of their competitors: every country chooses their Olympic teams differently, and many have not made any nominations yet.
“It seems like every race we have, some other athletes we run into have made their qualification standard,” Dunklee said. “Every week people are excited, like the Swiss girls in the relay yesterday.”
Cook and Dunklee, though, have already secured their spots and been named to the U.S. team. (The rest of the American roster will be filled after IBU Cup races this weekend). They really don’t have to worry about results.
“The most important thing besides taking a lot of pressure off, is that it allows us to really train, focus on the training, and focus on doing what we need to do to be fast later, and not focusing on being fast now,” Dunklee said of already being nominated for Sochi. “That’s huge. I’m really thankful for that.”
Dunklee still found plenty of positive things to take away from today. Case in point: her three penalties.
“It was better than my average has been this year,” she said. “The last three sprints in a row I have averaged 60 %, so 85 % is a definite improvement.”
Head coach Per Nilsson hopes that improvement continues as the team days tick down before the Olympics.
“They are fine physically, but for I think both of them, shooting is good in training, but they haven’t done it in races,” Nilsson said. “It’s good to have one more week of racing to work on the race part. Because it’s not exactly as they want it to be… hopefully they ramp up next week.”
Nilsson can be a tough judge to impress, but he also has supreme confidence that his athletes can accomplish the work he still has laid out for them.
“Susan, for example, that has been her trend most of the years – she’s a little up and down, but she performs really well when it’s the championships,” he acknowledged. “But also today, Susan had her two best prone stages of the year.”
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.