Mäkäräinen Shows U.S. Biathlon Women the Ropes (and Swimming Holes) in Kontiolahti

Alex KochonJuly 31, 2014
The U.S. Biathlon women's team, including Hannah Dreissigacker (l), Susan Dunklee (second from r) and Annelies Cook (r), with Russia's Ekaterina Yurlova (second from l) and Finland's Kaisa Mäkäräinen (c) at the 2015 World Championships range in Kontiolahti, Finland. (Photo: Jonne Kähkönen)
The U.S. Biathlon Women’s A-team, including Hannah Dreissigacker (l), Susan Dunklee (second from r) and Annelies Cook (r), with Russia’s Ekaterina Yurlova (second from l) and Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen (c) at the 2015 World Championships range in Kontiolahti, Finland. (Photo: Jonne Kähkönen/USBA)

When the U.S. Biathlon women step out onto the trails at Kontiolahti, Finland, next March, there should be some muscle memory that comes into play on the 2015 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships course.

They’ve been spending the last two weeks there, rollerskiing and testing their technique and fitness the loops, and learning more about the course and Finnish culture with reigning Overall World Cup champion Kaisa Mäkäräinen.

On July 20, the three 2014 U.S. Olympians and women’s A-team members — Susan Dunklee, Annelies Cook and Hannah Dreissigacker — arrived in Kontiolahti, about 450 kilometers northeast of Helsinki. There, U.S. Women’s Coach Jonne Kähkönen set up several training sessions with Mäkäräinen, his former athlete, who also took the team orienteering, to her favorite local swimming holes, and joined them for a barbecue.

Susan Dunklee racing her way to seventh place in the World Cup pursuit in Kontiolahti, Finland, on March 16. (Photo: USBA/NordicFocus)
Susan Dunklee racing to seventh in the IBU World Cup pursuit last March in Kontiolahti, Finland. (Photo: USBA/NordicFocus)

“It has been helpful to try to keep up with her on skis and have a few head-to-head shooting duels,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “Ekaterina Yurlova from Russia joined us one morning as well.  A few Finnish juniors also joined us for a time trial.  It can be difficult in the race season to really get to know athletes from other countries, but it is a lot easier in the summer when everything is more relaxed.”

On Wednesday, Dunklee flew to Norway with Mäkäräinen to compete in the Blink rollerski festival from Thursday to Saturday in Sandnes and Lysebotn. She will be the first U.S. female biathlete to race in the world-famous event, and plans to do the uphill climb and biathlon races at Blink.

“I am most excited about the opportunity to get lots of head-to-head shooting practice against some of the world’s best under the pressure of a race,” she wrote. “That is something that is very difficult to simulate in the training season, so it will be a valuable experience.”

Before her team’s camp in Finland, Dunklee spent her rest week backpacking between huts in Norway. Despite hiking one day for more than nine hours by herself (after bypassing one hut to get to the next), she described it as relaxing.

“The week in Norway was good for the soul,” she wrote. “Sometimes your head needs some recovery too.”

In Kontiolahti, the U.S. women did most of their rollerski-combo workouts at the World Championships range, familiarized themselves with the course’s climbs, and experimented with corners and transitions throughout the loops, Dunklee explained.

“Of course skis move a lot differently than rollerskis, and even in the winter, we have to be prepared to adapt our skiing style day-to-day based on snow conditions,” she added. “This course has one steep wall that I absolutely love (mostly because I know lots of other athletes hate it) and the terrain suits my strengths: V1 and V2 alternate.”

“This course has one steep wall that I absolutely love (mostly because I know lots of other athletes hate it)…”  — Susan Dunklee on Kontiolahti’s 2015 IBU World Championships course

Cook explained that her main goal at the Scandinavian camp (with another stop at the Torsby ski tunnel in Sweden next week) was to focus on quality training without distractions.

Kaisa Mäkäräinen (FIN) climbs to victory in the Lysebotn hill climb on Thursday. (Photo: blinkfestivalen.no)
Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen climbing to a victory in the Lysebotn hill climb last season at the Blink Festival in Norway. The 2014 edition of the race took place Thursday, with Makarainen and Americans Susan Dunklee and Lowell Bailey competing. U.S. cross-country skier Liz Stephen won the women’s race. (Photo: blinkfestivalen.no)

“I hate missing out on life and sometimes at home that means I get overwhelmed trying to do everything,” she wrote. “Here in Finland, I can just keep it simple. I also want to do that for training — to keep working on confident shooting and skiing, but keeping it really simple and intuitive.”

While in Kontiolahti, the team stayed at cabins at a campground near town, Cook explained. They commuted on trails with a cruiser bike, visiting lakes and picking blueberries along the way. Outside of training, they didn’t have to worry about too much; Kähkönen’s wife cooked them Finnish meals and treats.

Mäkäräinen also went out of her way to accommodate the Americans.

“It was great for me to get the chance to ski against her in a normal time trial just to see where she is better than me,” Cook wrote. “We also have a small group so it is great to have one extra person around to mix it up!”

Dreissigacker explained that it had been fun getting to know Mäkäräinen better.

“It makes you realize that the World Cup leader is just a normal, hardworking person,” she wrote.

“It makes you realize that the World Cup leader is just a normal, hardworking person.” — Hannah Dreissigacker on training with Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen

Finishing up their second week in Kontiolahti, Dreissigacker described the beautiful weather and valuable training they’d experienced. Even a windy day, like Thursday, made for good practice on the range.

“It’s a unique course with some really steep big hills, but also a lot of flat,” she added. “So it’s good to get more practice skiing here.”

“The world championship course is just hard,” Cook wrote. “There is a massive uphill wall that is going to be a killer no matter what way you slice it. But it is cool to try some things that will make it faster to ski up so the suffering has a bigger payout!”

In Torsby, Cook and Dreissigacker will meet up with other U.S. Biathlon teammates (including Dunklee) and shift to snow for technique work and ski testing.

“It will be fun to have the entire team there — men, women, techs and coaches,” Dreissigacker wrote. “The team atmosphere is always a lot of fun when we’re all together.”

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Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon (alex@fasterskier.com) 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.

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