In Friday and Saturday’s World Cup sprint races in Ruhpolding, Germany, it was clear that something was slowing down U.S. biathletes: their skis.
The U.S. team usually has excellent skis, Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier on Friday and also on Sunday after the mass start race, but the sprints were one of those rare instances of what Norwegians would call a smørebom, a waxing crisis.
“Our staff, they all work really hard and just like I’m disappointed when I don’t have a good race, they are disappointed when I don’t have good skis for my race, because they put so much effort into it and it means a lot to them to do a good job,” Dunklee said on Sunday. “This week we kind of struggled with the materials. But today they were good, and that was really nice [for everyone].”
Sure thing: in the 12.5 k mass start, Dunklee turned in the fifth-fastest course time. That’s a far cry from the sprint where she had said that she felt she had one of her best races of the season, but it didn’t appear that way on the results. On Sunday, she gave her team something to cheer for as she worked her way up to third place by the final shooting.
She had gotten there by shooting carefully for the first three stages.
“My first big goal today was to find the joy in racing,” she explained. “The second was to shoot really carefully in the prone stage, and take as much time as I needed to settle and make the shots. I kind of messed that up in the earlier mass starts this season.”
Determined to erase the memory of penalty-laden competitions earlier this season, Dunklee cleaned her first prone stage and picked up one penalty in the second. Then she cleaned her first standing.
Besides shooting, the American had also gotten into third place by following some very fast ladies. On the third lap, she left the range behind Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic, the most successful biathlete in Oberhof last weekend and eventually third in the mass start.
“I had good opportunities,” Dunklee said.
On the fourth loop, she followed Darya Domracheva, who had won the sprint and went on to win the mass start by 16.5 seconds over Franziska Preuss of Germany.
“It’s kind of hard to tell where you’re going to end up after shooting,” Dunklee said. “You just put your head down and ski through the pack. Suddenly, going into that last shooting, I was in third. I had no idea leaving the range that I was anywhere close to that. I just kind of followed Darya around the loop, and we got to the end of the loop and I looked up and there were only two people in front of me.”
Once she hit that final shooting stage, Dunklee picked up two penalties. She dropped to 16th place and stayed there all the way to the finish. She crossed the line a minute and 11 seconds behind Domracheva, who had cleaned the final stage and then skied the second-fastest final loop time to boot.
Despite the might-have-beens, Dunklee seemed satisfied and happy with her result. 16th is her best result so far this season.
“I definitely felt like the sprint result was not indicative of where I was,” she said. “I had a lot of confidence coming into today, and especially with my shooting coming together.”
That confidence was not much depleted by missing two shots in the final stage. That’s biathlon.
“I felt really relaxed there,” Dunklee said of that shooting stage. “It’s not the first time I’ve been in that situation. It reminded me of the mass start at Sochi, actually. So I’ve been there before, I know what it’s like, I can relax. I felt like I did a good job of that. I missed a couple of targets, but even though obviously things didn’t go perfectly, I felt like I did well.”
After ending last season on a high point – Dunklee got her first World Cup podium ever in Oslo, Norway, in the last weekend of racing – she has stayed ranked solidly in the top 25 this season, but had no spectacular results. The mass start felt like a step forward, she explained.
“It feels great to be back in the mix,” Dunklee said. “It was fun, it was exciting, and it’s confidence. I know I can be back there.”
In First Mass Start, Heinicke Hangs in for 23rd
Dunklee had just one fellow North American in the mass start: Canada’s Megan Heinicke, who earned the nod after finishing 11th in the sprint on Friday.
It was the first time Heinicke has ever made a mass start in top-level competition, and she was psyched.
“I was really happy to have qualified for the Mass Start today- it was the first of my career and it was painful but fun!” Heinicke wrote in an e-mail. “I wasn’t particularly nervous- just my usual level of pre-race tension/excitement. I think having started several relays this year really helped build my confidence about the mass start format- but still, skiing in a pack like that I think you can always learn something!”
Unfortunately, both Heinicke and Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens agreed that the form which had gotten her to 11th place in the sprint was lacking. Heinicke said that her legs felt “heavy” and Ahrens noticed a bit less speed.
With just two penalties in the four-stage race, Heinicke finished 23rd, 1:48.2 behind Domracheva’s mark.
“I was very impressed by Megan’s skiing in the sprint which helped her to get into her first mass start,” Ahrens wrote in an e-mail. “Today she could not quite repeat the same ski form but decent shooting made her gain a few spots. In general she has been showing increasing confidence in all aspects of biathlon and that is showing in her results, I am excited to see what the second half of the season and especially World Championships will bring.”
The two penalties were both a frustration and a relief to Heinicke: she felt that she could have had one less, but she was also very happy with her standing shooting.
“On the whole, my shooting confidence is improving and I think that is helping me a lot,” she wrote. “I was quite a good shooter and suddenly started struggling with standing 2 seasons ago, so every small victory on the standing targets is good! There was one unnecessary prone miss but still, 90% is great and I was really focused on my job in the range despite the pressure of the mass start format and quite tired legs! I shot a little bit slower/less aggressively today. I think in prone that was a reaction to nerves and in standing it was a conscious decision fighting for each shot as my legs felt a bit shaky.”
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.