Leading up to Thursday’s 15-kilometer individual race, the first day of the IBU World Cup at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway, Susan Dunklee had been feeling tired and Megan Heinicke was still sick. Not ideal, but they had to roll with it.
Dunklee, of US Biathlon, formulated a plan to start conservatively and speed up if she felt she was up to it. Heinicke, of Biathlon Canada, assumed after 10 days of dealing with a cough that refused to let up, she probably wasn’t going to feel great. She missed last weekend’s entire World Cup in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, because of it.
Yet the two toed the start line, and Dunklee went out seventh behind top competitors like World Cup leader Kaisa Mäkäräinen of Finland in bib 2 and Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand in bib 5.
After one so-called conservative lap, which ended up being the 15th-fastest first lap overall, Dunklee had already put herself in a strong position with a clean first prone. She missed one on the next standing to fall back a few places, but hit every target on her second prone to put herself back in the running for a top performance.
One final miss on her second standing gave Dunklee another minute penalty, and she finished third, 4:07.1 behind Mäkäräinen in first and 23.2 seconds behind Hildebrand, who was in second at the time.
“My shooting today felt very deliberate rather than the ideal automatic, but I focused on the basics — a relaxed stable position and trigger squeeze,” Dunklee explained in an email. “I knew I was having a great race going into the last stage and it was disappointing to miss that first shot.”
Like most of the 86 women that finished the race, she had some tricky conditions to deal with, with some fog during zero as well as during the race, although it was “never enough to totally obscure the targets,” Dunklee wrote. “Snow conditions were firm for the earliest starters but quickly deteriorated into deep corn. The fog created flat light conditions making it difficult at times to see the tracks or the berms in the downhill corners.”
She made a point to push over the “monster climbs,” saving just enough before the crest of each so she could go hard up and over.
“I knew I was having a great race going into the last stage and it was disappointing to miss that first shot,” she wrote. “At that point I told myself that my real test today was whether or not I could regain the right focus for those final four shots, and I did. I feel really good about that.”
At the end of the day, Mäkäräinen — an early leader who cleaned every stage and posted the fastest course times on each lap to keep everyone else more than a minute behind — won in 43:54.8 and Dunklee ended up 11th. The fourth-fastest skier on her last lap, the American clocked the seventh-fastest course time overall.
About 20 minutes after Dunklee started, Heinicke set out in bib 49, skiing middle-of-the-pack course times but cleaning each passing round to pick off the places.
“I had some clear ski technique goals to help myself stay focused on course no matter what … and I wanted to be confident in the range,” Heinicke explained in an email. “I have been shooting well recently, and with no wind, there was no need for me to shoot ‘extra carefully’ or slowly so I just wanted to relax and do my thing on the range without any special changes in approach because the the individual format.”
She ended up knocking down all 20 targets in the four-stage race, the longest women’s format on the circuit.
“I was pretty relaxed mentally until the last bout,” Heinicke reflected. “For the last standing, there was definitely that little dialogue going on my head with part of me thinking all those pre-mature happy thoughts about the possibility of hitting 20 and the other part of me just focusing on my job and each target. … I’m glad the ‘focused’ part of my brain kept the upper hand!”
Once she realized she cleaned the last stage, another thought popped into her head: “ ‘Oh jeez…I actually hit 20?!?!…again!’ ” she wrote. “But that changed pretty quickly into thoughts about skiing hard for the last loop.”
With a sense of where she stood from the Canadian staff out on course, she finished 11th initially and was bumped to 12th by Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who started 60th and placed fourth with clean shooting.
Two-tenths of a second back from Dunklee in 11th, Heinicke tied her personal-best 15 k result in 12th (after placing 12th in the 15 k in Östersund, Sweden, earlier this season), which was also her second-best World Cup result (she was 11th in last month’s sprint in Ruhpolding, Germany).
“Another top 15 finish is awesome and given that my health is still far from 100% I can’t complain,” she wrote. “At the same time it is a bit frustrating, this was one of my slowest skiing performance this season (although our skis were excellent) and I am confident that on an average, healthy day I would have posted my first top 10 finish with 20 hits today.”
Overall, her course time ranked 50th, while her shooting and range times were 16th- and 17th-fastest.
Six of the top seven women shot 20-for-20, including Mäkäräinen, followed by the Czech Republic’s Veronika Vitkova in third (+1:20.9), Dahlmeier in fourth (+2:28.2), Poland’s Monika Hojnisz in fifth (+2:51.5), and Ukraine’s Juliya Dzhyma and Iryna Varvynets in sixth and seventh, respectively.
Mäkäräinen couldn’t remember the last time she cleaned a four-stage race. According to RealBiathlon, she’s done it four times in her career and never before in a 15 k.
“I think it was in the 2011 World Championships, but the big thing is that it was in a 15 k,” she told the IBU. “I woke up this morning and felt confident, but I was a bit worried about the fog when I came to the first prone. I was wondering if I could see the targets … In prone I had to be very careful, to take every shot carefully and not miss.”
Darya Domracheva of Belarus broke the trend in second with one penalty on her first prone, which set her 40 places back. The 30th starter, she went on to clean every round thereafter and skied the second-fastest lap times after Mäkäräinen to work her way back to second, 1:18.3 back.
“The tracks were very deep and it was very hard; you had to find a part that was just a little harder but as the race went on, those spots became less and less,” Domracheva told the IBU.
“Nineteen-of-20 is not bad. Kaisa was really strong on the shooting range and the tracks and I think the result might have been the same even if I hit that one target.”
Hildebrand took eighth with two misses, one on each of the first two stages, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic started ninth and finished ninth with one miss on her third shooting, and France’s Anais Bescond missed one on her last stage to place 10th, 2.5 seconds ahead of Dunklee.
The second Canadian, Rosanna Crawford in bib 14 came out raring to go after crossfiring in the Nove Mesto sprint and pulling out of that race, which made her ineligible for the pursuit last weekend.
“I was looking forward to getting back on the race skis and redeem myself from last week’s disaster,” Crawford wrote in an email. “I love Oslo! So being here definitely put me in a good mood. The tracks were fast and the sun was shining for our two training days.”
She aimed for precision on the range and felt like she accomplished that on her first three bouts with clean first and third stages and one miss on her first standing. In the final standing, she missed two more for a total of three minutes of penalties.
“I’m really disappointed with my last shooting. That was not necessary,” she wrote. “Coming into the last shooting I knew that with a clean shooting a great race was possible. I tried to keep my mind clear and focus on the process, but I think I got a bit ahead of myself. The fog was tricky in standing today. You really had to search out the target. But as the results show a lot of women had a great shooting day today, so no excuse.”
Crawford finished 28th overall, 6:07.2 back from Mäkäräinen.
“I am happy to be in the top 30 pretty consistently this year. But I know what’s possible with 100% shooting,” she added. “Even on an off skiing day if I hit 100% it can be a race I’d be proud of.
“We had an amazing day for all three of us today,” she added, referring to Heinicke and Audrey Vaillancourt, who finished another 30 seconds back in 30th for her career best. “With both Megan and Audrey hitting 20/20 and Audrey getting her first top 30! Today definitely makes up for our lack of nation cup points in Nove Mesto!”
After her perfect-shooting day, Vaillancourt, 23, explained in an email that she focused on hitting each shot individually.
“I think taking the focus away from the total result helped me a lot,” she wrote.
Before the race, she felt calm and ready, and best of all, she liked the course, which featured “hard climbs, fun downhills, rolly sections.” With good shooting, she hoped for a top 40.
“I was really trying to be in the moment during today’s race so I basically took it one hill, one lap, one shooting bout at a time,” Vaillancourt wrote. “This helped me not to get overwhelmed and made me feel confident about the last shooting. It was just one of those days when it feels really easy on the range.”
She added that she was “relieved to finally have really good race. It feels great to see that I, too, can be up there on a good day,” she wrote.
Hannah Dreissigacker placed 33rd for the U.S., 21.4 seconds after Vaillancourt, with clean shooting in every round except her second — where she missed three.
“On the whole, I’m happy with my race and placing,” Dreissigacker wrote. “In biathlon you can always play the game of ‘where would I be if I’d hit one more shot…two more…etc’, and that is especially true of individuals.”
With three misses in her first standing, she explained it was hard not to think about what might have happened if she shot better on that stage as well.
“But in the end, I’m happy with shooting 85% and I’m glad to have come back and shot two clean stages after that bad one,” she wrote. “I definitely went a bit harder on the lap before the first standing stage, trying to catch a ride with a faster skier. I don’t regret it — that’s how you learn and get better! But I also have to learn from the bad shooting stage.”
The third of four American women in Thursday’s race, Annelies Cook placed 55th (+8:18.2) with three penalties (1+0+2+1). Clare Egan was 82nd (+12:29.0) with six misses (1+1+1+3).
Check back for the men’s 20 k report, featuring Canada’s Nathan Smith in 12th and American Leif Nordgren in 20th.
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.