For most of the skeleton crew of athletes traveling with the U.S. biathlon team to Oberhof, Germany, this weekend’s World Cup races didn’t go exactly as planned.
“The sprint was a tricky day – but both Susan [Dunklee] and I felt optimistic like it was going to be our day to grab a great opportunity and I failed,” Annelies Cook wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier.
“The sprint was a tough day,” agreed Leif Nordgren, who finished 42nd in the men’s 10 k competition on Friday.
The course seemed to be in somewhat better shape than it was for the opening stages of the FIS Tour de Ski last weekend. Although athletes shot their rifles across a grassy range, which presented some jarring imagery for this winter sport, there was at least enough snow for a 2.5 k loop.
“The conditions are always a big obstacle here, and if you aren’t on top of your game, whether jetlagged or just not focused it can make you pay,” Nordgren said of some of the team’s potential challenges this weekend. “It’s always a fight for the organizers here to have enough snow for the races, this year was no exception. You just have to be ready for whatever kind of conditions come your way, it may be bad conditions, but it’s bad conditions for everyone… so that’s really all I can say!”
At least Dunklee, Cook, and Nordgren qualified for the pursuit: Dunklee placed 32nd in Friday’s 7.5 k sprint and Cook 60th. Their teammate Tim Burke wasn’t so lucky, missing six shots in his 10 k sprint and landing in 61st, just one spot outside the pursuit.
“Yesterday was one of the races that I just try and forget as soon as possible,” Burke wrote in an e-mail. “The shooting conditions yesterday were a complete lottery and unfortunately I got stuck in some pretty heavy wind. While it was incredibly frustrating, I know I had races in the past where I was on the lucky side.”
With Lowell Bailey sitting out the sprint due to a cold, that left Nordgren as the lone U.S. man to make the pursuit. The rest of the U.S. team are at IBU Cup races which serve as Olympic trials; because these five athletes have already qualified, they are staying on the World Cup.
Just making Saturday’s pursuit wasn’t enough to guarantee a good race once you’re there, though. Nordgren and Dunklee both felt less strong than they had on Friday.
“I was actually happier with the sprint race than today’s pursuit,” Nordgren explained. “Yesterday I just felt like things came together pretty well, where as today I felt like I was running against the wind so to speak… I had 1 or 2 too many misses to have a great race. Really in today’s field you can’t make too many mistakes and expect to come out better.”
For Nordgren, who was sick during the Hochfilzen, Austria, World Cup, any of these races still felt like a major improvement in fitness, however.
“It was nice to be back racing again,” he wrote. “Yes, I do feel a lot better than before the break.”
Dunklee’s ski speed, too, showed big improvements, as she clocked the 10th-fastest ski time en route to her 32nd-place performance in the sprint. Then, in the pursuit, she initially moved up thanks to clean prone shooting and fast skiing.
“I started really hard out of the gate and forgot to pace myself, so my first loops felt much stronger than the last couple,” she said. “It was great to clean both prone stages and be in the heart of the pack on loop three. It certainly helps to have stronger shooting in the early stages because it keeps you in the race.”
Then Dunklee hit a dead end, both tiring on her skis and missing some targets in standing. Three penalties in the first standing stage dropped her from the top 20 back down to 28th; after one more penalty in the final stage, she ended up 25th on the day.
“My standing shooting has been marginal lately and today I continued to struggle with a poor hold on the targets,” she wrote.
But for Dunklee, it was mainly a positive weekend.
“It feels great to start 2014 with some solid points!” she concluded.
Cook wasn’t so lucky in the pursuit: although she managed to move up two spots (she finished 54th out of 56 starters), it came painfully, with nine penalties in all.
“Shooting felt normal in prone- and that is what was such a bummer for me- to miss four in the first stage and not have any idea why,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I didn’t feel nervous about hitting them at all. Normally, I shoot 100% prone in training- so this disparity is frustrating.”
Starting in 60th with the big spread from Friday’s sprint had already left her three and a half minutes behind race winner Darya Domracheva, so after four trips around the penalty loop (and then one, one, and three more in the next stages), she had a new worry: getting lapped by the leaders, which usually results in being pulled from the race.
“I was just trying to keep in the game mentally and going back and forth in my head viewing it as a way to push myself and wondering about if Domracheva was going to pass me and then when she did, I was wondering when they would pull me and then they didn’t,” she wrote. “It is a hard mental place to be in. It is all part of being an athlete, but it is the heartbreaking part.”
While Dunklee could come away from the weekend happy to score some World Cup points, Cook was at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
“I am pretty bummed,” she wrote. “This is not what I want to be doing, but I don’t know what to change. I came into this weekend with high hopes but it is very difficult to keep bolstering my confidence without any good results… I hate letting down my coaches and wax techs and it is embarrassing. I am lucky that they are always supportive and help me pick myself up again.”
Racing continues in Oberhof on Sunday with mass start competitions, but none of the Americans qualified for the 30-racer cap.
As a whole, the team hopes that things might be looking up once they land in Ruhpolding, on the other side of Germany, for the next bout of racing.
“My Christmas break was very productive,” Burke wrote. “I was able to put in two big weeks of training at altitude and I really believe that is going to pay off later in the season. Right now I think I have a little too much training volume to be at my best, but I hope to save that for February!”
Or maybe there’s an even shorter-term solution.
“Probably the biggest thing that held me back this week was a little jetlag,” Nordgren wrote. “We just arrived here in Germany on Tuesday, so I think in a few more days I’ll be fully adapted and hopefully ramp up a little bit… I was really happy with the training during the break. The training scenario in Lake Placid was really pretty much perfect. Kudos to ORDA for making the snow there and having our loop ready for us to train on, it really made all the difference in the world!”
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.