Perhaps the U.S. biathlon team’s results in the 7.5 and 10 k sprints in Östersund, Sweden, today could be summed up like this: on their way, but not quite there yet.
Tim Burke again led the team, this time placing 17th with two penalties. He was a minute and 18 seconds behind winner Martin Fourcade, who was clearly in a class of his own today.
It’s not his best result – Burke hopes that soon he’ll be able to return to the World Cup podium – but he was happy with it.
“Going into this season, one of my big goals was to improve my ski times in the sprint races,” he explained in an e-mail. “In the past I preferred the 15 and 20 kilometer races and I felt like I was giving away too much time in the 10 k. Today was definitely one of the better ski times I have had in the past four years for a sprint race. I am very happy to see some of the small changes I made in my training paying off.”
Burke had the 11th-best course time, and another hit target would have moved him easily into the top ten. He knows that the potential is there for better results.
“So far my shooting has been decent, but I will definitely need to improve in order to get back onto the podium,” he wrote. “I feel like my timing is still a little off but I am hopeful that will come back with some more racing.”
He’ll get another chance in the men’s pursuit tomorrow, along with teammates Lowell Bailey and Leif Nordgren, who finished 23rd and 51st with one penalty apiece. Russell Currier missed the top-60 cut, placing 90th with five penalties.
“I’m feeling good with the start of the season,” Bailey wrote after adding his sprint result to a 20th-place finish in the 20 k individual. “I have been in solid positions in both races in both the shooting range and on the ski course. I’m hoping both elements will improve as the season moves forward. The men’s field is so tight right now that even an incremental improvement in either department can have a huge impact on results.”
Bailey says that he “threw my first shot high” in prone, but is looking to constantly improve his shooting. He has often had excellent season starts in Östersund and hopes that can continue in the pursuit.
“Östersund has been a great venue for me,” he wrote. “I like the course and the shooting range has a relatively easy approach. It has been tricky wind conditions the last few days, but nothing that can’t be managed… [I am] looking forward to the head-to-head shooting situations that will develop in tomorrow’s pursuit.”
While Burke and Bailey have had consistent results so far in Sweden, including strong relay legs in the opening mixed relay, for Nordgren the result was a much-appreciated improvement. He missed four shots and finished 71st in the 20 k individual.
“I felt much more energetic, I could actually push myself today and it was a good result after the disaster on Wednesday,” Nordgren said of the sprint. “I still have a ways to go till I reach a more competitive shape, but its a long season so I’m not too worried.”
He was disappointed with his one penalty, which came in the last shot of the competition, but said that perhaps he should have waited a bit longer before taking it. Lesson learned.
All in all, he feels like things might be beginning to come around after a difficult off-season of training.
“I’m pretty disappointed with how things have gone so far,” he explained in an e-mail. “I’ve struggled this summer with a lot of stomach problems which have for sure had an impact on how I’ve been able to prepare the last few weeks. Considering that, I’m happy to be in the pursuit, and I’m happy today was such an improvement from Wednesday. Racing so many times in a row can change the shape pretty quick, so I’m hoping I’ll improve pretty quick now.”
In the women’s race, the team was left somewhat disappointed. Susan Dunklee led the way in 41st, just out of the World Cup points, and was left wondering what could have been. She had the ninth-fastest course time, but was derailed early by a rifle malfunction.
“My magazine didn’t load completely in prone, so nothing happened when I pulled the trigger,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I took it out and started over, but accidentally hit the trigger while closing the bolt, so the first shot went into the dirt. It was a frustrating way to start.”
That shot counted as a penalty, she explained, since she was responsible for pulling the trigger earlier than she had intended. There’s no do-overs, so she was stuck with a penalty loop before she even got going.
In standing, she missed two more shots.
But ever the optimist, Dunklee is focusing on tomorrow’s pursuit.
“Skiing felt pretty good,” she wrote. “I finished far from where I’d like to today, but my ski speed and my relay proves that I can be fighting for a podium on any given day. As for tomorrow- I love chasing people down. Starting two thirds of the way back will be fun for that.”
Teammates Annelies Cook and Hannah Dreissigacker finished 79th and 81st, each with three penalties.
The U.S. team, along with everyone else, consistently struggled with course conditions.
“The conditions were again very challenging,” Burke explained. “The hardest part was probably that the downhills were deep and rutted up, which made for very little recovery on the course. I spent a lot of time before the race trying to figure out where to find the best snow and I think this paid off.”
Racing second, the women probably had it even tougher.
“The rotten slush and the fresh patch job with stockpiled snow combined to turn the downhill corners into undulating bumps, much like a pump track,” Dunklee wrote. “It’s a good thing we love to mountain bike and have practiced that sort of thing. After the race, I heard the wax techs arguing over who had witnessed the most broken skis, poles and stocks during today’s crashes.”
Finland’s Kaisa Makarainen, who placed third in the sprint, used the press conference to call on the organizing committee to improve the course before Sunday’s pursuits.
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.