OSLO, Norway — In the last race of her international biathlon career, it came down to the last shot.
Hannah Dreissigacker, standing on the range in the U.S. suit one last time, had knocked down the first four targets in the final stage of the World Championships 12.5-kilometer mass start. Then it got to her.
“In biathlon the last shot is always hard because you always think, I got this,” she said. “But this one I actually thought about how it was my last shot ever in a biathlon World Cup race or international race, so it was like, ‘Oh, I just really want to hit it!’ And then I totally missed. I just imagined Jonne [Kähkönen, the national team women’s coach] watching me and being like, Damn it!”
Perhaps a frustrating way to go out, but Dreissigacker still had 2.5 kilometers on the trails before she reached the finish line, and she made the most of it.
“I would’ve liked to hit that one, but then I passed two girls on the last lap,” she said. “I had a little battle with the Swedish girls and got them both, so that was good.”
It was just the second mass start of her career, and Dreissigacker was able to add a 27th-place finish to her roster of results from these Championships. She’d been 18th in sprint a week ago.
Despite all the emotion, Dreissigacker, 29, tried to approach the race professionally and felt she had succeeded.
“I wanted to have a good race and I was taking it seriously,” she said. “You can’t be swiveling your head [looking at the crowds] too much, but [Holmenkollen] was really awesome. It was just cool. It’s a cool place to have your last race.”
Her inclusion in the mass start was part of a banner day for US Biathlon, which also fielded Susan Dunklee (who finished 11th) in the women’s race and Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey and Leif Nordgren in the men’s mass start.
“I think this is going to be a record for us,” Dunklee said. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but that’s phenomenal. The guys are psyched, we’re psyched, and it’s a special day to have the last race with Hannah. We’ve been doing this so long. Hannah’s been my teammate almost as long as I can remember skiing: the Northeastern Vermont [team], the BKL team, the New England teams for Junior Olympics, Dartmouth, Craftsbury, here…”
Dreissigacker decided almost a year ago that she would call it quits after this season.
“Last year after Kontiolahti [World Championships], it didn’t feel like quite the right way to go out,” she explained. “I also wanted to make the decision before the season. So I made the decision last spring. I wanted it to be something that I wasn’t waffling about all year, when I had a bad race and would decide, ‘I wanted to quit,’ and I would have a good race and think, ‘I want to keep doing it.’ I just wanted to try to enjoy the whole season and have my decision already made, and try my best to separate that decision from my biathlon.”
Dreissigacker was challenged in that plan, as she had a hard early part of the season. After struggling on the World Cup early, the 2014 Olympian was bounced down to the second-tier IBU Cup, where she initially continued to flounder.
“I had some really hard parts of the season where I just wasn’t doing well skiing or shooting, and it just wasn’t what I wanted for the year,” she said. “I wanted to quit and I almost quit in January, but then I was like, ‘No! This is what you decided, that you were doing it this year, and it goes both ways. You’ve got to finish this year, you owe it to yourself.’ And I’m very happy I did. It definitely turned around and this is a pretty perfect way to end.”
After re-finding her results on the IBU Cup, Dreissigacker raced the World Cup again, tallying top-30s in Canmore, Alberta, and Presque Isle, Maine. Then she headed to Oslo for World Championships, where she placed 18th in the sprint.
She still has a few races left, at North American Championships in Fort Kent, Maine, in two weeks’ time, but after that her biathlon days will be over.
“This is a pretty perfect way to end.” — Hannah Dreissigacker (US Biathlon), on retiring
“I love biathlon,” Dreissigacker mused. “I have to say, it’s a really really amazing sport. There’s so much to it. So much up and down. Such a mental challenge as well as the physical challenge, and the drama, and the emotion… oh my God. It makes it hard to do, but really fun to watch and be a part of.
“That said, I’m not planning on having it be a focal point of my life in the future,” she continued. “I would love to be involved on some level, whether it’s coaching kids on the side, or something else. But I also think that I need a little bit of a break for a while. I need to do everything else. I think if I was too involved I’d feel too sad.”
A multitalented and interdisciplinary thinker, Dreissigacker has a Dartmouth College degree in engineering modified with studio art, as well as a bachelor’s of engineering, which took one more year at Dartmouth. She has kept making art all through her biathlon career, some of which is posted on her blog, and has had a gallery show as well as taking custom orders for paintings.
“Mostly I think I’m just really excited to have a little more freedom,” Dreissigacker said. “A little less always having to be very disciplined. I’m excited not to have to be paranoid about germs. I’m excited not to have to follow a training plan every day to decide what I want to do – to wake up and see that it’s raining and decide to not train, or to wake up and see that it’s a beautiful day and not have to have a rest day, or do some specific workout. I’m excited to go for a ten-hour adventure in the mountains if I feel like it and not worry about being exhausted the next day.”
She’ll probably stay in very good shape, she laughed, whether that’s from skiing or running or hiking or mountain biking.
She’s not quite sure what’s next profession-wise, but there are several options which might keep her feeling fulfilled.
“I’m excited to have more balance in my life, whether it’s art, or being more involved in my values when it comes to the environment and how we treat the world,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that I really care a lot about that I’ve had to push aside a little bit. Ultimately I’d love to do something where I feel like I’m really making the world a better place. That sounds really cheesy, but that’s how it is.”
“I’m excited not to have to be paranoid about germs. I’m excited not to have to follow a training plan every day … I’m excited to have more balance in my life, whether it’s art, or being more involved in my values when it comes to the environment and how we treat the world.” — Dreissigacker
However, the detour through World Cup biathlon and a 23rd-place finish at the 2014 Olympics was worth every minute, she said.
“I have no regrets for making this imbalance in my life that gave me this focus on biathlon,” she concluded. “It definitely felt necessary to make it a bit of an imbalance if I was going to really focus on biathlon. And that was hard for me. I’m a person who really likes balance, and I have so many interests. So it was hard to do that, but I also loved it.”
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.