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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — If you were looking for the women’s US Biathlon Olympic team between training and racing over the last two weeks, your best bet was to follow the music.
Led by Annelies Cook and Hannah Dreissigacker, the women’s team took the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” with them throughout their adventures at the 2014 Winter Games — playing it in unique picturesque scenarios around the Endurance Village, Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center, and even at some of the security checkpoints.
The idea was to dance to the upbeat music, get others to join in, film it, and make friends in the process. While the teammates collaborated in the past, they planned to publish it before the end of the Olympics.
“I think the coolest thing was going up to people, random people like volunteers and asking them to dance for us,” Cook said after Friday’s relay. “[And] how excited people were. Once you did that then people would talk to you, so I got to meet a lot of volunteers and hear their stories. Just asking different athletes to dance for us and breaking down those barriers was really special.”
Aiming to publish the dance video before the women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay on Friday night, the U.S. team successfully went into the race with that mission accomplished (although it was temporarily made private to comply with Olympic rules). Now they could focus on their last race of the Olympics.
The ultimate goal, however, remained consistent with their running theme: have fun.
“I felt so relaxed and I just came out and was like, I don’t even care how we do, I’m just so happy to race,” Cook said. “I mean, you do care, but there’s days when you’re out there and you’re just so nervous.”
Fortunately for Cook, the team’s anchor, Sara Studebaker cleaned both her prone and standing stages to rocket to fifth, 1:12.9 behind the leader and 43.7 seconds out of third. She continued the momentum after teammate Susan Dunklee posted the fastest first-leg time to put them in fourth, with three spare rounds. Second-leg Hannah Dreissigacker used six spare rounds and tagged Studebaker in sixth.
“I felt really confident in how the girls were gonna do, and when they tagged off to me in sixth I was like, Yeah this is where we should be. We’ll let’s just see what happens,” Cook recalled.
The U.S. women’s previous best was eighth in two World Cup relays this season, with the first one coming in early December in Hochfilzen, Austria
Heading out of the tag zone just a second ahead of the Czech Republic’s Jutka Landova, Cook clocked the fourth-fastest course time on her first of three laps.
“It was nice because … I could just sit with her and I felt really relaxed,” Cook said.
Feeling good on her first and second laps, Cook used two spare rounds on both her prone and standing stages, which kept her out of the penalty loop, but cost her some time on the range. She headed out on her second of three 2 k loops in sixth place, then seventh by the next time around.
Trailing Italy’s Karin Oberhofer on the final loop, Cook tried to catch her. There, she recalled: “My body filled with lactic acid like crazy. It was all I could do to stand up.”
Cook held her position to finish seventh for the best U.S. women’s Olympic relay result, surpassing the eighth-place mark set by Beth Coats, Joan Smith, Laura Tavares, and Joan Guetschow at the 1994 Olympics.
With a team total of 13 spare rounds (one fewer than the Czech Republic) and zero penalties, the Americans came in 2:11.7 behind the Ukrainian winners (who won in 1:10.02.5) and 30.7 seconds after Italy in sixth.
“I felt like sixth was so close,” Cook said. “It was right there, but I had two many extra rounds, but you could take those extra rounds in any other leg.”
“I think it was a very big opportunity to do something very, very special and we missed out on the shooting part to do so,” US Biathlon (USBA) High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler said. “They gave everything they had so that’s great to see, but the shooting held us back from an absolutely sensational result today.”
Closest to the podium after the first leg, in which Dunklee handed off six seconds out of third, Dreissigacker lost two places using three spare rounds on both of her stages. Studebaker bumped them up to fifth, passing Switzerland’s Aita Gasparin and Landova on her last loop.
“I’ve had some really good results in relays; I really like relays so it was great,” Studebaker said.
In her first race a week after she placed 55th in the 15 k individual last Friday, the 29 year old had her best race of the season and said she felt especially rested and relaxed coming into the relay. Studebaker’s third-loop course time was the second fastest of her leg.
“That was hard, but it was awesome,” Studebaker said of her last loop, in which she attacked up the first long climb out of the stadium. “It’s just a 2 k, your chances of blowing up are pretty small and I can usually pull out a really great last lap, that’s kind of my specialty. I just went for it.
“I was a little worried on the downhill that I might have some lactic-acid legs and fall or something but it worked out great,” she added with a laugh. “It was a good feeling, too, for sure to see that in myself.”
Dreissigacker wished she could take back a couple of the spare rounds, but so did some of her other teammates.
“Once you get to that third spare round, you don’t even care that you had to shoot it — you just care that you hit it,” Dreissigacker said. “I was just really happy I didn’t have a penalty loop today.”
None of the Americans did, and with a fewer spares, Eisenbichler was confident the could’ve placed even higher than their previous World Cup best of eighth.
“If you look at the time back, we are with absolutely awesome shooting we are 1:30 back from the medal, with, you know, nine extra rounds,” he said. “So it was a possibility for sure, that’s a very, very high goal. But I think top five for us was absolutely possible and that’s still for us a sensational result.”
“Everything is in our hands, everything was there,” U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kähkönen said. “The material was really good today, and it was just those extra rounds that we kept having. … This is just another good confirmation of what I’ve been staying throughout the season. When they started bringing results as a team, this is what you have to believe in. You have to be open for a good result and not just hope that you will get one. It’s reality, for sure.”
Dunklee, for one, wanted to win her scramble leg. Derailed slightly by two spare rounds in prone and another in standing, she relied on fast skiing to stay within 13 seconds of Italy’s Dorothea Wierer in the lead.
At the end of the day, she said the team was upbeat and in what could be the final Olympic race for at least one of its members. Studebaker said this will most definitely be her last Games, and she’s unsure whether she’ll continue to race next season. Cook said she’ll have to reevaluate in a couple years.
Dreissigacker, who had a career best by more than 30 places in the 15 k Olympic individual, emphasized the importance of keeping it light.
“I think for all of us it was like, this is the last one so just have fun,” she said, showing off the American flag painted on the side of her face. “For us, it was leave it all out there, have fun doing it, enjoy being here.”
“There’s definitely some stress here at the Olympics, especially early in the week I felt it, but it’s been [nice] to unwind a little bit as we get into the rhythm of things and be able to enjoy it as we go,” Dunklee said.
As for their video: that’s been keeping Dreissigacker, the editor, occupied since they arrived the first week of February.
“It was … really fun getting athletes from other countries involved, and making some new friends that way,” she explained. “So far we’ve gotten lots of good feedback. I’ve gotten both ABC and NBC asking for permission to post it. So thats awesome!”
— Nat Herz and Chelsea Little contributed reporting
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.