Over and over throughout the last several years, the United States biathlon team has known that they have a shot at the podium in the mixed relay, an event which features two women and two men from each team.
Sometimes they have come close, making the top eight – and sometimes they have finished 12th or 18th.
“I think that we know based on the people we have on our team, and our abilities and our past results, that if we have a good day we can be right up there,” Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier after today’s competition in Östersund, Sweden. “That we did know going into it. Every time we enter a mixed relay, we know that if we have a great day we can be on the podium. But then you can have a disastrous day too!”
Today was definitely not disastrous: Dunklee, Annelies Cook, Tim Burke, and Lowell Bailey combined for ten spare rounds and no penalty loops, and finished seventh in the opening competition of the World Cup season. Their time was 48 seconds behind the winning French team, but only 17 behind fourth place.
Burke agreed that it felt good to finally have a kickoff mixed relay that confirmed the team’s potential rather than ending on a bummer note.
“I don’t remember our exact place here last year but we definitely weren’t that close to a podium finish,” he said. “Today we were in it all the way until the end. It gives us good confidence going forward. The training season went well and I think in the next mixed relay we’ll be ready to go.”
Dunklee kicked things off for the U.S. It was the team’s first real competition of the year (they had time-trialed with the Germans a week earlier), and she was nervous.
“I had been pretty nervous for a few weeks actually, just thinking about this race and I really wanted to get my season off to a strong start,” Dunklee explained. “That was one of my goals, and this was going to show whether or not I was ready to do that. I felt really good out there. The skiing felt a lot like Sochi honestly. It was pretty fun.”
To add to the new-ness of the race, the IBU is using a new format for relay starts which instead of ten lanes and a double-pole zone, features three lanes, longer lines back, and skating right out of the start. It took some getting used to, Dunklee said.
“I was in the third row off the start line, so I was probably sixth or seventh by the first hill,” she said. “It worked out.”
Dunklee cleaned in prone to ski with the leaders, and then used two spare rounds in standing. That still put her within striking distance, and on one of the first hills on the loop, she surged to the lead.
“I might have gone a little too hard too early on that last loop,” she admitted, laughing. “It was kind of an experiment – I felt really good. Then we still had two significant climbs left to go at that point and I realized that the pack was still right behind me, so I thought, well, it might be a little smarter to let them lead and just tag along, and not lose any time to them but not try to be a hero and get up a 3-second advantage over them.”
Dunklee tagged off to Cook in fourth place, just three seconds off the lead. Cook couldn’t have been happier. She said that being at the front did not even add any pressure – it was only beneficial.
“What better way to start the season than getting tagged off with the lead pack!” she wrote in an e-mail. “Susan rocked it and so did the boys. I love racing the mixed relay and being up there in the beginning was only fun.”
Cook used two spares in prone but then cleaned standing, which she considered a happy accomplishment and a great way to set the tone for the season: no more shooting struggles.
“Cleaning standing was also fun!” she wrote. “I needed that for my own feeling of confidence… Being sick a couple of weeks ago and dislocating my thumb last week meant that I didn’t do any intensity for three weeks and so I have some room for improvement. But I don’t feel as anxious that it won’t come as I did last year. I am excited for what is to come.”
She tagged off in 9th place, but only 39 seconds behind the leader.
“Today was a nice confirmation of where I am right now,” she wrote. “In general, I have been feeling better and more confident than last year, but it’s always a little nerve wracking to have that first race and see the truth. Last year, in this same race, I remember feeling dismayed at the speed of the other women in comparison to myself. Today, I felt much more relaxed and able to keep up better.”
Burke was next to ski, and, like Cook, was coming back from being sick. He described the first lap as something of a shock to his system, but by the time the third leg hit its midpoint, he was back in a racing groove.
“I feel like it’s definitely a race I can build on,” Burke said. “I think that I’m in good enough shape that with good shooting I could be up there and could fight for a podium. But there are so many guys right now who are sitting in the same boat.”
Finally, Lowell Bailey skied the anchor leg for the team. He took the tag in fifth place, cleaned prone, and moved into fourth. Three spare rounds in standing set him back, but several other teams also had errors; he left the range in fifth.
“I could see that Lowell came out in fifth with a couple of people hot on his tail, but I had no idea what happened on the range,” Dunklee said.
Those teams “hot on his tail” were Lukas Hofer of Italy and Jakov Fak of Slovenia, the latter of whom had been winning but then had to ski a penalty loop. He sailed out of the penalty loop with a vengeance, and both eventually passed Bailey.
It wasn’t the ending the team was looking for – “We had a solid race but we can do more!” Burke tweeted – but in terms of the result and their progress, it was just fine.
“Psyched to start off with a solid seventh place in the WC mixed relay tonight!” Bailey tweeted after the race.
“I think it was a really solid start to the season for us,” Burke told FasterSkier. “Most importantly it showed how we can really get up there and fight for the podium places in the next relay. We were right there today and anything could have happened. It’s kind of bittersweet I guess. We’re pleased with the seventh but we know more was possible.”
Based on their performances today, the team is looking forward to the individual races. For Burke, that means he’s hoping for a top ten. Dunklee, too, is excited to see what comes next.
“I’m pretty excited to see how I do the rest of this week, and do a few more races,” she said. “I’m getting fired up. I would hope we all are. I think we did well today. And we were in touch of the leaders for most of that race, which was really exciting.”
– When Burke got sick at their training camp in Sjusjøen, Norway, it was a definite “oh no” moment. Burke spent much of last season battling illness, and it upset his Olympic goals.
“It has been a really tough season for me,” Burke told FasterSkier in Oslo, Norway, at the last World Cups of the season. “I’ve struggled a lot. It’s hard to end like that.”
So in Sjusjøen, Burke had to deliberately take a positive attitude and decide that this season would not turn out like last year.
“I tried not to think about it too much,” he said. “Luckily it only lasted a few days and it was really mild, and I didn’t miss too much training. Now I’m just hopeful I have it behind me for the season.”
– Dunklee’s mental challenge was to overcome a bad time trial with the Germans. She didn’t reveal the details, but she did say this: “We hopped in a time trial with the Germans last weekend, and that did not go so well.”
– Both were pleased with the team’s choice of Sjusjøen for its preseason camp.
“I think that was a good move,” Burke said. “When you come to Östersund too early, they are obviously spending a lot of time preparing the course for the World Cup. So leading up to the races you’re often limited by the times you can train and the hours you can have on the venue. Going to Sjusjøen I think was a really good change of pace for us, in that we had all – we could accomplish all the training that we wanted to, when we wanted to. That was a big difference from here.”
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.