There’s something in the air, or a lack thereof, in Antholz, Italy. Maybe it’s the fact that the biathlon venue is nearly 2,000 meters, about 6,500 feet, above sea level. The combination of a lack of oxygen and its proximity to the sun and mountains seems to work wonders for some athletes.
On Friday, Susan Dunklee was one of 95 women in the IBU World Cup 7.5-kilometer sprint that found her way into the top 10 in Antholz.
The American’s eighth-place result — her season best — came a year after she placed fourth in the Antholz sprint for what was then her career best.
“Antholz has always been a wonderful place for me and a good place to recover from a mentally tough start to the year,” Dunklee explained in an email after Friday’s race, in which she finished 1:10.3 back from Belarusian winner Darya Domracheva, who posted the fastest time in 19:57.8. “I thrive with Italian sunshine, mountains, food, and snow.”
Before the start, Dunklee recalled what worked for her there last year, “Skiing BIG with a stretched-out efficient V2 alternate, holding back in key places on the loop to feel okay for the range, and taking several extra breaths before shooting,” she wrote. “The high elevation here is an added stress and it helps to have a plan for how to deal with it.”
The 12th starter on a bluebird afternoon, Dunklee cleaned her first shooting to leave the range in fourth, 6.2 seconds behind Domracheva, the race leader at the time. Dunklee went on to miss one shot in the middle of her standing stage, which she explained landed high.
“The follow-though looked a little off,” she reflected. “Usually the field makes extra shooting mistakes here because of the elevation, so I suspected I could have a great race with one miss.”
She was right. Dunklee headed out of the penalty loop and into her last lap still in fourth, 52 seconds behind Domracheva, who cleaned both stages. While the American held fourth position through the finish, she was later bumped four spots by Italy’s Karin Oberhofer (who placed fifth), Finnish runner-up Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Nadezhda Skardino of Belarus (who ended up seventh), Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand (who placed sixth), respectively.
With the 10th-fastest course time, Dunklee ranked 73rd on the range in terms of time spent there, which was all part of her plan. In order to shoot well, she had to hold back on both the race course and take her time shooting, she explained.
In doing so, she finished 19.9 seconds off the podium and 0.7 seconds ahead of ninth, which Germany’s Franziska Preuss and Poland’s Weronika Nowakowsak-Ziemniak tied for. Dunklee will start Saturday’s 10 k pursuit with Skardino, 1:10 behind Domracheva and 1 second ahead of Preuss and Nowakowsak-Ziemniak.
“Historically I find my stride for the season in Antholz, so I’m hopeful I can build on this like in past years,” Dunklee said of her season best. “But I know that I must continue to find the fun in each race experience if I want to sustain myself at this level.”
Domracheva Fast-and-Flawless for First
An even earlier starter, Domracheva in bib 3 pushed herself to the brink with the fastest-course time and yet managed to be one of four women in the top 10 who cleaned both stages (along with Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier in third, Slovakia’s Jana Gerekova in fourth, and Skardino in seventh).
Her time wasn’t always the fastest. Later in the race, three women topped her through the first stage with clean shooting as well. Mäkäräinen was on track to give Domracheva a run, besting her time after the first shooting by 7.6 seconds. Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko ranked second after prone, 4.3 seconds behind Mäkäräinen, and Oberhofer cleaned to clock through in third, 6.6 seconds back.
Mäkäräinen remained in control heading into the stadium for the second-and-final stage, with a 6.4-second lead over Domracheva. However, she missed her first standing shot and the penalty lap cost her as she left the range in second, 20 seconds behind Domracheva.
“I missed my first in standing,” Mäkäräinen later told Domracheva as they chatted before the flower ceremony. “After that it was like fighting. It’s always bad when you miss your first.”
Domracheva nodded her head. Sometimes you missed; sometimes you didn’t. Fortunately for her, she fell into the latter category with her 21st World Cup win on Friday.
“Shooting clean this week and last week in the sprint is very good. I have not done anything different, but it is working,” Domracheva told the IBU. “I think the sun and good conditions help. It was an amazing feeling when I realized I was winning. But I did not want to celebrate too early.”
Upon finishing,sShe collapsed to her knees and awaited her fate. Mäkäräinen came within 26.9 seconds of her — the closest anyone would rival Domracheva all day. The overall IBU World Cup leader by 52 points over Domracheva, Mäkäräinen placed second, and Dahlmeier, the second starter, held on for third (+50.4) with clean shooting.
Gerekova started fifth and also nailed all 10 shots to put herself in fourth (+55.2). Oberhofer missed one standing but had the third-fastest course time (after Domracheva and Mäkäräinen, respectively) to place fifth (+57.5).
Mäkäräinen told the IBU after the race that she was “very happy” with her result after having a difficult time in three previous sprints.
“Every competition is different and maybe it is a miss by only 1 millimeter, but sometimes, the small things matter,” she said.
Leading three Germans in the top nine, Dahlmeier was especially excited for her first-career podium, jumping up and down before and during the flower ceremony.
“Today was a big surprise, but it was a perfect race,” she said. “I felt good on the tracks … Our team is very young and doing well right now; we have a very good team atmosphere.”
Domracheva will start Saturday’s pursuit with a 27-second head start on Mäkäräinen. Dahlmeier will go out third, 50 seconds back, followed by Gerekova (+55.0), Oberhofer (+58.0) and Hildebrand (+1:01) before Skardino and Dunklee.
Crawford 29th in First Race Back Since Oberhof
Four North Americans (two Americans and two Canadians) made the top 60 to qualify for the pursuit. In her first race back in 12 days, Crawford placed 29th with a single prone miss, finishing 1:48.1 behind Domracheva.
After a cold caused her to miss the entire last World Cup stop in Ruhpolding, Germany, and kept her from training for seven days (and shooting/skiing for eight), Crawford hoped for a top 40 and perfect shooting, like her boyfriend Brendan Green had done in four-straight races. On Thursday, with a 50-for-50 shooting streak, he posted a career-best fifth.
“My goal was a top 40 to keep on making points and still looking for that illusive 100% shooting in a non-relay race!” Crawford wrote in an email. “I’ll have to get a few pointers from Brendan!
“We started things off really slow not wanting to relapse back into the cold, but the sunshine and good Italian food helped get me back to normal,” she explained. “I still have a cough that I’m sure will hang around for a while.”
The 41st starter, Crawford’s time ranked 30th before the first stage. There, she missed her first shot to drop to 61st.
“I’ve struggled with prone shooting here in the past and knew that I needed to be slow and precise to hit the target,” she wrote. “Even though we live at 1400m in Canmore it’s hard to shoot at 1600m! I missed my first shot and then took two breaths between the next four to make sure I would hit them. It was by far the slowest I’ve ever shot prone but I am happy to only had one miss!”
Crawford knocked down her remaining targets to recover to 31st after the second stage and finish 29th. Her course time ranked 34th and she her range time was 66th.
During her last lap, Crawford heard she was in 20th, about four seconds from 16th.
“The finishing stretch is pretty tough here, long and flat and I was happy to be able to have a good push to the line,” she wrote.
On Saturday, she’ll start 1:48 back with Ukraine’s Juliya Dzhyma.
“I think this will be my first pursuit here, so I’m really looking forward to it,” Crawford wrote. “With some good shooting I hope to stay in the top 30 and then I’ll have a week of training before the next world cups to hopefully get back to where I was before Christmas!”
Her teammate, Megan Heinicke placed 40th in the sprint, 2:07 back from Domracheva, with one miss in prone and another in standing. Heinicke’s shooting was faster — with the 19th-fastest range time — and she posted the 36th-fastest course time.
For the U.S., Hannah Dreissigacker made the pursuit by one-tenth of a second 60th (+2:44.3), with three penalties, one prone and two standing. She had the 16th-fastest range time and was 48th fastest on course.
Also for the U.S., Annelies Cook placed 67th (+3:01.5) with two standing penalties, and Maddie Phaneuf of the Maine Winter Sports Center was 93rd (+4:13) with three misses (1+2) in her first World Cup sprint.
Canada’s Julia Ransom placed 76th (+3:19.2) with three penalties (2+1), Audrey Vaillancourt was 83rd (+3:38.3) with a single standing miss.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.