OSLO, Norway– Susan Dunklee has come close to a podium before.
It started in 2012, when in her first World Championships the American biathlete finished fifth in the 15 k individual, just seven seconds from a bronze medal. Then in Antholz, Italy, this January, she sat in third place in the 7.5 k sprint for nearly 20 minutes, before being bumped back to fourth by just half a second.
Today in the 7.5 k sprint at Holmenkollen, the tide finally went the other way and with a savage finishing push Dunklee unseated Olga Vilukhina of Russia by one second to take third place for her first ever World Cup podium. And it was partly thanks to all those near-misses – Dunklee has five other top-ten finishes and had a strong Olympics – that it was possible.
“I feel like I have different expectations for myself now, higher, but I have higher confidence to go with it too,” Dunklee said. “So I’m not afraid of being on the podium or even winning one of these days. It’s just a matter of time if I can keep this level up, it will come together. Instead of being terrified when I’m getting good splits, it’s like, okay, sweet, that’s exactly where I want to be. It is less stressful.”
Dunklee ended up 33 seconds behind Darya Domracheva of Belarus, who won the race. But the next four finishers were all within ten seconds of Dunklee, and she had to gut it out at the finish.
“She’s good at that,” U.S. head coach Per Nilsson said.
Domracheva of Belarus ran away with the race, beating Tora Berger of Norway by 10.7 seconds despite clean shooting by Berger, Dunklee, Vilukhina, and fifth-place Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic.
But the consensus in the U.S. biathlon community was that today was Dunklee’s time to shine, and he did, collecting only the third World Cup podium ever by a U.S. woman, and the first since Joan Smith in 1994.
“I think she’ll do well today,” U.S. biathlon board secretary and former national team coach Art Stegen said on the range as the race was starting. “The conditions are really tough out there. And she is good at that.”
As Dunklee would describe it, that’s not quite an accurate assessment of how things went at Holmenkollen today. Usually, she said, she does like the course – it is a V1 course with lots of hard climbs. But with recent warm temperatures the snow had turned to slushy cement.
“Today, it wasn’t anybody’s course,” she laughed, later calling the conditions “abysmal.”
Instead, she had to use a lot of discipline out on course to ski as fast as the conditions would allow.
“I couldn’t go as hard as I’d like in a lot of sections, because the second I’d start pushing into that hurt zone, my technique would fall apart and I would stumble and trip,” she explained. “You really had to search out the firmer stuff on the edges.”
And that came at a price. Dunklee almost lost hold of her first podium when, looking for the best snow, she caught a tip of her ski and fell.
“Then you were closer to the fences and the v-boards, and I actually tripped myself up on one of the boards,” she said. “It was on an uphill so I didn’t lose much time, but it was just frustrating losing my rhythm more than anything.”
And on the shooting range, she was careful with a breeze that sometimes shifted from side to side. At one point, she said, halfway through her prone bout the wind died and she contemplated making a correction on her rifle. Then she gambled and just went for it. The risk paid off with perfect ten-for-ten shooting.
Nilsson noted that in the past few weeks, Dunklee has been on fire on the trails, turning in some of the fastest ski times in the field. Today she slowed down, turning in the 14th-fastest time, but made up for it on the shooting range.
“Today she did it with the mental part,” Nilsson said. “I don’t think she was as sharp in skiing shape as last week, for example, but biathlon is biathlon. She shot really well in these conditions, which was quite tricky.”
To make sure she hit her targets, Dunklee took her time – 20 seconds longer than Berger spent on the range and 12 seconds longer than Domracheva.
“I went really slow,” Dunklee laughed. “In standing especially, I took an extra breath a few times which is usually a death sentence. But I just worked on the hold.”
And the end result? Something that had been coming for quite a while.
“Yes, I think she has showed that she has been ready since after Christmas, to have the capacity to be on the podium,” U.S. head coach Per Nilsson said. “We have hoped that it would come, for sure, but it’s really tight. You saw today that it was just one second… She did super well in shooting today, and she made it. It’s well-deserved.”
Teammate Hannah Dreissigacker, too, was not surprised that Dunklee had finally made it.
“I feel like I could just see it coming, you know?” she said. “I just thought she would do it this weekend, or last weekend, or really any of these weekends. She’s skiing so fast and that’s how it works. If you’re that fast, then one of those times the shooting will happen.”
Even after she finished and had bumped Vilukhina off the podium, Dunklee was far from certain that she’d hold on to her spot. She started with bib 15, and there were 80 more women to come.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting to hold onto it because I started so early in the field and usually there are some people who come from behind,” she said. “It’s really special.”
But by the time she was sitting in a press conference with Berger and Domracheva – the two most dominant biathletes over the last two seasons – it seemed pretty real.
“It’s definitely something that you dream about when you’re out training all summer long,” Dunklee said, savoring the moment. “But it still seems like kind of a stretch, a reach dream. This year to have the ski speed to really make it a reality, to be realistic, it’s so exciting. I got a taste of it in Antholz when I got knocked off by half a second. I thought I had it for a little while. It makes me hungry to come back for next 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.