Among all the endurance sports, biathlon is by far the most chaotic. Besides the ups and downs of what effect hundreds of hours of training per year might have on our body, there’s also an ugly truth: a slight gust of wind at the wrong time can take a good race and turn it into a bad one.
But for all the potential disappointment, this leads to the possibility of magic, too.
After a disappointing start to the season, which saw her fail to crack the top 75 over the first two weeks of racing, Hannah Dreissigacker turned things around by shooting perfectly in today’s World Cup sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia, and finishing in a tie for 17th – her best result ever.
“Biathlon is so weird,” the American biathlete laughed in a phone interview. “When things go badly, it’s so hard, and it’s hard to imagine that they would ever be good. And then a week later, somehow everything just goes much better. It’s such a roller coaster like that.”
Part of the early struggles came from the structure of the team’s training plan, which focuses on strong performances later in the season around championship events and relies on the athletes to some extent racing themselves into better shape.
“Since I’ve been training with the biathlon team, so the last two years and this year, my season has gotten off to such a slow start,” Dreissigacker explained. “I start the first races and I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m going to be so slow. I think our plan is really based on racing yourself into shape. In biathlon, you have so many races that it makes sense. But it can feel so frustrating in the beginning, and so hard to understand that it could actually happen.”
Knowing she had to trust the plan, the 28-year-old came into this weekend with some deliberate plans on how to improve over her first several results.
“I definitely had a lot of goals this week as far as how I was going to do better, and I felt like that really worked,” she said. “I’ve been working a lot on how I am going to approach skiing mentally, to push myself harder, and how to approach the shooting as well. So I felt really good about that. It just came together.”
Coaches and teammates say that they’ve seen the result coming. After all, Dreissigacker finished 23rd in the 15 k individual at the Olympics in February. She’s always had the potential.
“She is a consistent shooter in practice, she’s always been a great athlete and a strong skier, plus she’s been working hard at this for years now,” teammate Susan Dunklee, who finished 19th, wrote in an e-mail. “It was only a matter of time for her to find the top twenty. After a slower start this year for the women’s team we just needed some confidence. This will help a lot. I think Saturday is going to be a lot of fun.”
Saturday: the 10 k pursuit, a race where start times are based off the results of the sprint. Dreissigacker will start 59 seconds behind Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, who won today, and Dunklee three more seconds back.
Dreissigacker is looking forward to her first head-to-head race of the season, where she thinks she will ski better. In the sprint, she had the 45th-fastest ski time.
“Honestly, the sprint has always been my worst race,” she admitted. “Which is a bummer. That level of intensity by myself is really hard for me to do, I think. I’m a little bit better with the individual because it’s a little less intense so I can do that by myself. But it’s a challenge for me to figure out how to race sprints better. That’s one reason I’m really psyched for the pursuit. I can ski with people and really work on that efficiency and stuff. I think that should help a lot.”
In the sprint, she skied her first lap with Franziska Hildebrand of Germany, who ended up placing 21st despite two penalties. That helped Dreissigacker to a good ski split – 24th – on that loop. But her next loops ranked 58th and 50th in ski time. That was at least partly, she thought, because she didn’t have someone to follow.
“The whole race was much better than I’ve been skiing, relative to the field,” she explained. “Neither of my last two laps were as fast. I was skiing more by myself and I also think I started to get tired. And everyone was yelling at me, so I maybe got a little bit frantic. When you’re just skiing behind someone it’s much easier to relax and ski smooth and efficient. When you’re just thinking about ‘I have to go as hard as I can now’, sometimes I start thrashing a little bit.
“So I went really hard,” she continued. “I left it all out there. I felt pretty dead on a lot of parts of the course. That was a success. But I also know that I can do better than that if I’m being efficient.”
Performance, and Team, Coming Together
U.S. Women’s Coach Jonne Kahkonen confirmed in an e-mail that the first part of the season is, to some extent, about slowly putting the pieces together for strong performances.
“It was great to see Hannah put one together before Christmas,” he wrote. “I have probably been sounding like a broken record; repeating that the pieces of the biathlon puzzle are all there and that it can happen quick – just let it happen and continue to work. Really glad that Hannah got the confirmation now and also the same for Annelies last week on the pursuit in Hochfilzen.”
Teammate Annelies Cook started off the season in the same boat as Dreissigacker, but improved last weekend, placing 50th in the sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, and then skiing up to 33rd in the pursuit. Today, she placed 94th with three penalties.
“Especially after that first weekend, Annelies and I were feeling pretty bummed, and really like we were in it together because we were performing similarly, and it was bad,” Dreissigacker said. “Her race last weekend showed me that I could be there with her, we can both do this. I was so psyched for her. And I wish we could have both had a good race today. But at least now both of us have had that chance to say, ‘yes, we belong here, and the season will get better from here’.”
The U.S. has just three women on tour at the moment, which can make it difficult mentally when nobody is having outstanding results. But things have been improving for the group.
“It is good to have results for all of the women; for sure it boosts the confidence of the team and takes the pressure off of a single athlete,” Kahkonen wrote. “Having three athletes is tough, mainly on the Nation’s Cup points, but with these three athletes performing to their potential we can take the challenge. I have seen that all of these ladies have the potential for this and more based on the training, good that they are getting the results to back it up. I think on Hannah’s race today the key was simply going after it without the fear of failing.”
More Race Notes
Dunklee, who had two penalties, said that the range conditions left opportunity for good results based on clean shooting, like what Dreissigacker accomplished.
“While I was in the start pen, I saw a lot of the early starters shoot prone and head straight for the penalty loop,” she wrote. “It seemed to indicate a wide open race. This range is a bit tricky because the downhill approach sends you in with so much speed and there is no chance to flush your legs.”
The wind wasn’t particularly tricky, but this was the first race of the series since moving to Hochfilzen, and the range is definitely unique. That may have thrown a few athletes for a loop.
“The tricky thing here is the elevation; just high enough to create the challenge,” Kahkonen wrote. “Also the range approach was fast with the conditions, so if you were not prepared for it, it would end up in trouble. We talked about this beforehand and Hannah did an excellent job executing the plan.”
Dunklee was neither overjoyed nor disappointed in her result. After a podium last season in Oslo, it’s clear that more is possible. But to place in the top 20 with two penalties isn’t bad, either.
“If a top 20 is becoming my average, I’ll take it,” she wrote. “I had a great ride with Kaisa [Makarainen of Finland, the fastest skier on tour] right out of the gate (she was on loop 2) and was able to match her pace on that loop and still feel relaxed. Not sure what caused my prone miss, but my standing miss was on my last target. I thought about it too much and over-held that shot.”
For Dreissigacker, the turnaround in ski speed was likely due to some recent high-quality training sessions. When she heads home for the Christmas break, she’s going to continue focusing on the race-intensity training and hope that brings further improvement in January and February.
“Since the last race, I’ve had a couple good intensity sessions that I felt like I needed. I think I just didn’t have enough intensity leading into the first couple weekends,” she said. “So I’ve had more good intensity sessions and had my confidence sort of boosted there. Just knowing that all right, yeah, I know I’m not where I want to be but I can get better, and this race, I’m going to get better.”
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.