It wasn’t pretty out there, American Susan Dunklee explained an email about the women’s first individual race of the season. “Deep slush with unpredictable patches of ice underneath” made for some not-so-graceful skiing in Thursday’s 15-kilometer World Cup race in Östersund, Sweden, she wrote.
But Dunklee found some comfort knowing that everyone else was flopping around, too.
US Biathlon’s early starter in bib 19 (of 96), she explained that the conditions worsened as the race wore on, but the snow was already deep and sluggish at the start. Still, she ended up skiing faster than most of the field with each passing loop, recording for the seventh-fastest course time overall (and the eighth- and sixth-fastest second and third loop times, respectively).
And while she initially finished 11th and ultimately ended up 21st with three penalties, 3:59.1 minutes behind Belarusian winner Darya Domracheva, Dunklee explained she wasn’t feeling in top form.
“My body did feel a little tired and I didn’t feel ‘sharp’ today,” she wrote. “I focused on whatever hill or corner was immediately ahead of me. This was a day to use the head as much as the muscles; constantly assessing and reacting to which side of the track had less slush and a harder surface.”
After cleaning the first prone, Dunklee missed two on the second stage for two minutes of penalties. She went on to clean her second prone and miss one on the final standing.
All the while, she didn’t hear any splits until her final loop. Even if she had, with just 18 women ahead of her, they wouldn’t have given her the most accurate sense of where she’d end up.
“Anything can happen in the shooting range, especially in the last stage when the pressure is on, so I take any mid-race splits with a grain of salt,” she explained. “The Individual is particularly unpredictable.”
Leaving the range for the last time, she was 11th at the time — which was where she’d end up at the finish. From there, Dunklee waited as she gradually slipped just outside the top 20, with later starters like Domracheva, third-place finisher Valj Semerenko (Ukraine), Tiril Eckhoff (Norway), Ekaterina Glazyrina (Russia), Sophie Boilley (France), Olga Podchufarova (Russia), and Megan Heinicke (Canada) placing in the top 12.
Enora Latuilliere (France), Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak (Poland), Franziska Pruess (Germany), Luise Kummer (Germany), and Jitka Landova (Czech Republic) also snuck ahead of her in the top 20.
“Darya passed me as if I were standing still and Tiril also caught me before the finish, so I was surprised to see I have the 7th fastest ski split,” Dunklee recalled. “They left me in the dust. It goes to show how wide open the field is this year — so many top women retired last year and now there is less depth and tremendous opportunity.
“I am happy to start off the season with a bunch World Cup points,” she added. “It’s a great feeling to know I still have plenty of room to improve too.”
The second U.S. finisher was Annelies Cook, who placed 73rd (+9:23.6) after four penalties (1+2+0+1). The team’s third woman, Hannah Dreissigacker was 86th (+11:19.7) with seven misses (3+0+1+3).
“Today certainly wasn’t our strongest team showing,” Dunklee said, after she and three teammates combined for seventh in the mixed relay on Sunday. “We often struggle at the start of the season. Many of the other teams have had more on-snow time than us, and lots of athletes are peaked right now because they had to recently qualify for a spot on their nation’s squad. The season is long, and we still have time to tune up. We will get there.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.