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SOCHI, Russia – Hannah Dreissigacker didn’t exactly kick off the Olympics the way she wanted to. A first-time Olympian in biathlon, the American finished 65th in Sunday’s sprint race, not good enough to qualify for the 60-woman pursuit.
While her coaches, like Dreissigacker herself, were disappointed, they knew that the result didn’t disqualify their youngest athlete from having a stellar race later in the Games.
“This is what I didn’t tell her, but I had the feeling, and I think I mentioned it to the other coaches too, that I could see the potential for a really good result,” U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen said.
In today’s 15 k individual race, Dreissigacker came back with just that sort of race: two penalties over 20 targets, the 30th-fastest ski time in the field, and 23rd place overall, the best finish of her career at the World Cup, World Championships, or Olympic level.
“I’ve had a real up and down year,” Dreissigacker said, relieved. “I’ve had some really good relay races, but I haven’t had an individual race where things have come together. I’ve been just kind of waiting for that to happen. I’ve been really working on the mental piece, and I think that happened today.”
While some athletes might get sad or disappointed after missing the pursuit or having a subpar race, Kahkonen and the coaching staff saw Dreissigacker take her emotions in another direction. And that’s when they knew that the rest of the field was in trouble.
“I have to give a really big hand for her approach,” head coach Per Nilsson said. “She was really pissed. You could see it in her eyes that she wanted more. She was not happy with this one. Even when I saw her after Susan [Dunklee]’s super race [in the pursuit], you could see that she wanted to be in that race, not watching it. She has that character also, which I think will bring her even further up. She wants to compete.”
Instead of competing in Tuesday’s 10 k, Dreissigacker stewed in her frustration, and came out all the better for it.
“I definitely had those days to just kind of be hungry, to watch these other races and to be like, I’m ready to go,” she said.
“I was feeling good physically. It was frustrating to watch – I came and cheered for my teammates, and it definitely made me think that I needed to make a good plan for this next race. And try to make sure I had a really good approach both mentally and for the physical piece.”
Along the way, she picked up advice from a variety of people. She chatted with Lowell Bailey, a teammate who came back from a mediocre 38th-place showing in the pursuit to make U.S. history with an eighth-place finish in the 20 k, about the course.
She talked to Kahkonen about how to stay positive.
And she talked to U.S. Olympic Committee sports psychologist Sean McCann, who travels with the biathlon team.
“I talked to the coaches and to Sean some, just about the idea that one bad day doesn’t really mean anything,” she said. “You have to bounce back… I’ve been just thinking about my previous not-so-good race and how to approach the shooting. I think that approach worked really well. I thought about taking a little extra time to set up for my shots, and just get in a good mental place. It seemed to work.”
And she watched the cross-country skiing sprint, where former Dartmouth College teammate Sophie Caldwell placed sixth.
“That whole day was so heartbreaking in a lot of ways,” she said, referring to Kikkan Randall’s failure to advance out of the quarterfinals. “But I got to go up and watch on the course, and that was really fun. Sophie has such nice technique, and it really inspired me to try to be more smooth on my skis.”
Finally, there was just the Olympic spirit spurring her on.
“I mean, it’s the Olympics!” Dreissigacker exclaimed. “It’s hard not to be psyched. Even if you get bummed for a little bit, it’s not that hard to get going again.”
All of these changes, discussions, and distractions helped Dreissigacker regroup and turn in the best performance of her career – by a lot. Her previous best World Championships result was 56th in the 15 k individual at 2013 World Championships.
In the process, she also moved into the leader’s position for the U.S. team. Susan Dunklee, who had tied the best-ever finish by a U.S. woman with her 14th-place result in the sprint, had been doing the brunt of the work this season.
Does that take some pressure off of Dunklee, who has been leading the team for most of the past two years?
“Oh, definitely,” said Dunklee, who finished 34th today. “Any time you have someone else who is capable to pulling together a big day, it’s big. Hannah has been doing so well in practice. She has been skiing so strongly, and she shoots so fast and she shoots so well. We’ve known that she’s been capable of this all year and it’s so sweet to see. So exciting.”
Dreissigacker has only been part of the U.S. biathlon team for two years; before that, she was a cross-country skier with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project and competed in biathlon on the side, qualifying for a few IBU Cup and Open European Championships tours.
The coaching staff praised how far Dreissigacker has been able to come in just two seasons.
“I guess it’s pretty simple – it takes a lot of hard work,” Kahkonen said. “But Hannah is really committed to that. She has been really good at taking the advice, putting in the work, and working on her own to try to figure things out. Obviously, it’s not just me. Armin [Auchentaller, the shooting coach] has worked a lot with the shooting for example. It’s a team effort.”
That effort has been switching Dreissigacker’s way of approaching training, so that she can follow a more biathlon-specific plan and attitude.
“I think for her, she had a really good base from doing sport for a long long time,” Nilsson said. “I think now maybe what she has learned is the structure of the biathlon training and how you train to be a good biathlete. I mean, if you see Hannah in the weight room or doing some runs or stuff, she’s an unbelievable athlete. But biathlon, you have to train biathlon in a specific and structured way. And this is the case for her.”
But what the staff kept coming back to was how much Dreissigacker wanted a good result. Usually, such emotion can get in the way in biathlon – something that both Dreissigacker and Dunklee have admitted in the past week.
This time, though, Dreissigacker managed to channel that emotion for something good.
“I think it speaks a lot about Hannah, and her experience and the fighting spirit that she has,” Kahkonen said. “And just being a good athlete, to bounce back like this. But the shooting has been there at practice and in the training, and a few times in the racing as well. She has had really good relay legs this year on the World Cup, under pressure. Definitely all the elements were there…. I will definitely remind her about this situation.”
On a bad shooting day, Dunklee placed 34th with five penalties, using the fifth-fastest ski time of the day to climb her way into the points; combined with her sprint finish and 18th place in the pursuit, she has qualified for the 30-woman mass start on Monday.
Sara Studebaker placed 55th with four penalties, and Lanny Barnes 64th with three.
Megan Imrie led Canada on her birthday, placing 30th with two penalties; Megan Heinicke finished 51st with four missed shots, Zina Kocher 63rd with eight missed shots, and Rosanna Crawford 67th with five missed shots.
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.