Note: This article has been corrected to include Susan Dunklee’s sixth-place pursuit finish last season in Antholz, Italy. On Friday in Pokljuka, Slovenia, Dunklee tied her best result last season and posted her best sprint finish in two years.
For Susan Dunklee, it felt really good to smell the roses (and gerbera daisies or whatever those orange flowers were) on Friday at the third International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup stop in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
It’s not that she hadn’t been to the flower ceremony before; the 29-year-old US Biathlon veteran placed sixth in a pursuit last January in Antholz, Italy, and she reached the podium two seasons ago at a World Cup sprint in Oslo, Norway. Before that in January 2014, Dunklee placed fourth in a sprint in Antholz, Italy, which, at the time, stood as the best result by a U.S. female biathlete since 1994.
In the time since Dunklee’s 2014 sprint podium, she has continued to lead the U.S. women’s team while experimenting with some tweaks to her training and her approach.
“Biathlon is a notoriously up and down sport,” Dunklee wrote in an email after Friday’s 7.5 k sprint, in which she placed sixth for her best result in two seasons.
In two weeks of racing beforehand, Dunklee had not finished higher than 31st this season. She placed 64th in the World Cup opening sprint in Östersund, Sweden, then 53rd at the sprint last weekend in Hochfilzen, Austria. In both races, she missed four of 10 targets.
“After getting off to a rough start this season, I realized that my biggest challenge would be to remain happy and confident, and to keep my focus forward,” Dunklee explained.
She described her summer training as high-quality.
“I took a lot more ownership in the planning, specifically targeting my weakest areas,” she wrote. “After seeing huge steps forward in training, I was hoping for big things this winter. In those first few races of the season I did a great job executing my race plan, but the results didn’t reflect that at all. That was frustrating and disappointing.”
Thank goodness for breakthroughs. On Friday, Dunklee knocked down 9 of 10 targets for her best shooting of the season. Combined with fast skiing (with her overall course time ranking seventh of 103 finishers), she ended up sixth, 30.6 seconds behind winner Marie Dorin Habert of France and 17.6 seconds off the podium.
Dunklee started second and set a long list of split times to beat for those behind her. Her time on the first loop held up as third-fastest of the day, and her last loop ranked eighth.
The eventual top four — Dorin Habert in first, Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier in second (+1.1) and Franziska Hildebrand in third (+13.0), and Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic in fourth (+16.4) — all cleaned the two-stage race. Another Czech skier, Gabriela Soukalová in fifth (+25.2) missed one prone shot, like Dunklee. Fortunately, prone hasn’t been Dunklee’s problem.
“Skiing and prone shooting have already been strong,” Dunklee observed. “Standing shooting has been what held me back this season. I’ve been working to fix a very minor issue with my timing. The trigger-finger/brain connection has been off and caused my shots to land left.”
In Pokljuka, her standing shots grouped more toward the center, she explained. She cleaned that stage, and that was the moment she knew Friday’s race could be a good one.
The second starter, she didn’t hear much in terms of split information, so she told herself to imagine she was fighting for a top 10. Dunklee finished first and held the lead until Soukalová in bib 15 finished 5.4 seconds faster.
“I felt relaxed today,” Dunklee noted. “Everything seemed so quiet that first loop — it reminded me of starting bib number 1, at Ruhpolding World Championships in 2012 when I had one of my best performances [placing fifth in the 15 k individual]. I tried to recreate that feeling.”
Back then, she was 26 and only four years into her biathlon career. Fifth stood as the best result ever for a U.S. woman at IBU World Championships.
Three and a half years later, she was back at the flower ceremony and within striking distance of the podium.
“This is a huge confidence booster for me going into the Christmas break and reaffirms the work I did this summer,” she wrote. “I am very happy today. Our whole staff is happy. Seeing them so excited at the flower ceremony reminds me of how many people are behind creating a good performance.”
According to US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler, the last few weeks haven’t been easy for Dunklee.
“She struggled a bit in the last weeks with her confidence, especially in standing shooting, but made a great step forward in the pursuit in Hochfilzen and today was just perfect,” he said in a US Biathlon press release. “She worked hard to cut her shooting times over the summer and showed that today very impressively. On the track she looked good and the seventh ski time reflects that. But I also know there is quite more to come for her on the ski speed in the coming weeks.”
U.S. Women’s Coach Jonne Kähkönen said he’d seen her progression throughout the summer and fall, but knew Dunklee needed a good race “to get the ball rolling.”
Dunklee will start Saturday’s 10 k pursuit in sixth, 31 seconds behind Dorin Habert.
“I am very happy today. Our whole staff is happy. Seeing them so excited at the flower ceremony reminds me of how many people are behind creating a good performance.” — Susan Dunklee, sixth in Pokljuka sprint
Also qualifying for the pursuit, Canada’s Rosanna Crawford finished 23rd (+1:11.4) in the sprint with a single standing penalty. She started early in bib 10 and while her race was slower than Dunklee’s (her course time ranked 38th overall), Crawford cleaned standing, and hit every target up until her last shot.
At that moment, she let out an audible scream, which TV cameras picked up, and she shook her head as she skated out of the range and into the penalty lap.
“I’m feeling a bit frustrated with my ski speed right now,” Crawford said afterward in a Biathlon Canada press release.
Like Dunklee, the 27-year-old Crawford also tried something different this training season. Specifically, she was hoping to peak later this winter.
“The shooting has been pretty good but the shape isn’t quite there,” Crawford said. “I knew that with changing things the first trimester of racing might now be where I want to be. Hopefully things pay off and the ski speed will come.”
About 15 seconds behind her, Crawford’s teammate Julia Ransom placed 31st (+1:26.3) for a new career best, improving upon 32nd in the Östersund sprint this season. The 22-year-old Ransom finished the day with a single prone penalty.
A third Canadian woman, Megan Tandy, made the pursuit in 51st (+2:00.8), finishing with three penalties (1+2). One of the latest starters in bib 95, Emma Lunder got some TV time during her shooting stage, where she missed two in addition to two preceding prone penalties en route to 89th (+3:31.7).
In the men’s race on Thursday, five Canadians qualified for the pursuit — a first for their team.
“This has been a pretty good start for the team, and our younger athletes are definitely ahead of where I was at their age,” Crawford said. “I think the good results by the older athletes in the past few years has allowed us to better prepare athletes coming up. With more support on Tour, less Tour fees, and more money put towards summer training – the results are showing with many of the team members getting World Cup points.”
Three U.S. women missed the top-60 pursuit criteria, with Hannah Dreissigacker finishing 7.3 seconds back from 60th in 64th (+2:20.5) with a single standing miss. Clare Egan placed 84th (+3:18.8) with two prone penalties, and Annelies Cook finished 94th (+3:47.0) with five misses (2+3).
Saturday’s races start at 11:15 CET (5:15 EDT) with the men’s pursuit, followed by the women’s pursuit at 13:30 CET (7:30 EDT).
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
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.