OSLO, Norway—Norwegian biathlon fans had high expectations coming into a home World Championships this season.
But perhaps the biggest pressure was on the men’s team. With the four core members all hitting the podium so far this season and two picking up individual wins, the demand for medals – preferably gold – was strong and loud.
And so it was something of a coup when on the first day of individual competition, Norway’s new World Champion in the sprint was 25-year-old Tiril Eckhoff in the women’s 7.5 k.
Kaisa Makarainen of Finland put down an early blazing-fast time, but many top competitors had started later in the field. In bib 42, Eckhoff was one of them.
It wasn’t until Makarainen had finished that Eckhoff took her first shot. She hit that one and the next four in prone, leaving the range with the fastest split time so far, and then also cleaned her standing stage. After powering around the final lap, cheered on by 20,500 rabid fans, she laid down a race that no other woman could match.
“A big thanks to all the crowd,” she said in the press conference. “My friends and family were watching and cheering at me. Thanks to the crowd who got me around the last loop. I was really really tired and they cheered and cheered.”
It’s not that Eckhoff is unknown. Far from it. She earned bronze in the Olympic mass start in 2014, and won a World Cup the following season.
But after being annoited as the heir to Norway’s biathlon throne upon Tora Berger’s retirement, Eckhoff hasn’t dominated.
Her 15-second victory over Marie Dorin Habert of France, the World Champion in this event last year, was just that, though: dominant.
She was almost at a loss for words to describe winning on home turf. Her club, Fossum IF, has its office just a few kilometers from Holmenkollen.
“It’s amazing,” Eckhoff said. “I went my first ski race here. Now I’m back and – it’s unbelievable to be World Champion. It’s amazing. Of course I had a dream, but I didn’t expect this victory. I worked hard. I don’t know how to describe it.”
Both Eckhoff and Dorin Habert shot clean. Another late starter, Laura Dahlmeier of Germany, worked her way into third despite a miss in prone.
“After the first mistake, I thought okay, for today it’s over, perhaps it could be a position in the top ten,” Dahlmeier said. “I never expected to reach the podium. The second shooting I shot zero, and the coaches told me I was on the seventh place. I thought maybe fifth or fourth. In the end I’m on the podium and I’m really happy about this position. I think it’s one of the best days of my life.”
Eighth for Dunklee
The first person to knock Makarainen out of her leader’s position was Dorin Habert, trailed by Susan Dunklee of the United States, who had started one bib ahead but missed a shot in standing. The pair crossed the finish line just seconds apart and then collapsed, before getting up to congratulate each other.
For a long while, Dorin Habert and Dunklee sat in first and second, perhaps in part because they had been able to push each other on the last lap.
“I was so glad to have a ride,” Dunklee said. “If you have anybody pulling away from you like that, you want it to be the best skier out there. She’s certainly one of them. I knew if I could just keep her in touch as much as possible it would help me a lot. I was actually accelerating – I think I closed some of the gap near the end.”
That was part of a very deliberate strategy. Dunklee earned her first podium on this sprint course in Oslo two years ago.
“I know I can be really strong on the big hill and on this little hill here [in the stadium],” she said of the Holmenkollen course. “And just holding back a slight, slight percentage of effort so I have something to give on those efforts, helps a lot. So I feel very confident being able to pace it.”
Eighth isn’t a podium, but it’s still one of the best performances ever by a U.S. woman at a Championships. Only a handful of women have ever placed in the top ten: Dunklee and Kari Swenson both have fifth-place results to their names.
“Susan’s off to an awesome start at the World Championships,” said U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb. “It’s great to see her in such good form. The performance today sets her up really, really well for the pursuit competition, and she’s shown that she has the speed to go head to head with anybody in the world. We’re going to see a really exciting competition tomorrow. And with this solid performance I think she’s virtually assured a start in the mass start too.”
After earning her first podium of the season two weeks ago in Presque Isle, Maine, Dunklee had found some motivation that had been lacking earlier in the season.
“I don’t think I had been super hungry in Canmore, for example, and I was a little worried about that,” she said. “Like, if I don’t have the hunger, then what am I doing out here? But then that Presque Isle podium really got me excited again. Motivated, and confident, and very hungry.”
After a two-week training block to sit and think about racing, Dunklee got nervous. But then the nerves went away and she was simply ready to race.
It showed in the mixed relay on Thursday, where Dunklee skied the leadoff leg for the United States. She shot perfectly and tagged off to teammate Hannah Dreissigacker in first place.
“The relay was fun,” she said. “That was a fantastic day. I felt really on. I felt like tactically I skied it really how I meant to going in, shooting I was exactly where I wanted to be, very focused, I was just trying to find that place again without putting so much pressure on myself. Trying to take the confidence from it but not feeling weighed down by it.”
Dunklee is honest about how important the mental aspect is for her. She says that it just takes her a little while to get psychologically focused and confident, and that World Championships often comes right at the time when things are coming together.
Dunklee’s breakthrough came in 2012 at World Championships, where she placed fifth in the 15 k individual. And she set best-ever marks for the American women’s team she doesn’t want to be defined by championship success.
After all, it was a regular World Cup podium that got her fire going again this season.
“I don’t want to be a big-race specialist,” she said. “I think that what I’m good at is peaking at the right time of the year. I think something about our training plan works really well for me.”
Needless to say, Dunklee is looking forward to the pursuit.
“I think it will be fun,” she said. “The better skiers you have to ski around, the better you’re going to ski. If I can get in behind a pack and relax a bit, I’ll do well, and I think there will be a lot of opportunities to do that.”
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.