(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Julia Ransom.)
Susan Dunklee laughed a little when she thought about her reputation as a World Cup biathlete. Often one of the fastest skiers in terms of course time, she said she’s also been known for some of the slowest shooting times.
Until this weekend.
The US Biathlon veteran broke through in Pokljuka, Slovenia, with her best results of the season so far: 11th place in Friday’s 7.5-kilometer sprint and fifth in Saturday’s 10 k pursuit. Both races entailed 95-percent shooting accuracy or better (on Friday, she cleaned the two-stage sprint with the second-fastest shooting and third-fastest range times overall).
On Saturday, her range time ranked third and shooting time was fourth overall.
That was a big step up from last season, and she said it was something she’s been working on for the last two years.
“It’s pretty obviously where my weak link is, my shooting speed … that’s what’s been holding me back,” Dunklee said on the phone after Saturday’s race. “There’s no reason not to try to gain speed there. It took a lot of work…”
After starting 11th in the pursuit, 43 seconds behind the leader (Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who won Friday’s sprint), Dunklee raced into sixth and 28 seconds back with a clean first prone and her distinctively fast skiing. Her course time on the first loop ranked first out of 56 finishers.
One loop later, Dunklee cleaned again to move into fourth, 18.7 seconds behind the leader. Dahlmeier had slipped into fifth with two penalties, and Norway’s Marte Olsbu, who started third, took the lead.
Still in fourth for the first standing bout, Dunklee recalled being in a sort of a trance.
“I was aware of everything going on around me in the range, but I wasn’t concerned by it. … I just had this detached kind of feeling,” she said.
That was a good thing — something she wasn’t necessarily used to feeling — but something she hoped for in future races.
“It’s a really good feeling to have in the race when the pressure’s on,” Dunklee said.
Entering the range in fourth, 28 seconds out of first and without anyone directly around her, Dunklee shot clean for the third-straight stage. Suddenly, she was in second, 0.7 seconds behind Olsbu, who had to ski one penalty lap and narrowly remained in first.
The rest of the top six left the range within 14 seconds of Olsbu and Dunklee — with Dahlmeier bringing up the tail end of the group in sixth.
On the second-to-last loop, Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand passed Olsbu and Dunklee, while Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen moved into fourth right behind Dunklee. With about 2.5 k remaining, Dahlmeier recaptured the lead and Mäkäräinen followed her just 0.7 seconds back in second. Hildebrand sat in third, Olsbu in fourth and Dunklee 3 seconds back in fifth.
For the final shooting, Dahlmeier led the group of six, including Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser, into the range. All were within 3.5 seconds of one another.
Dahlmeier hit all of her targets, Dunklee missed one, as did Hauser, Olsbu, Hildebrand, and Mäkäräinen. Eva Puskarčíková of the Czech Republic cleaned her five standing targets to move into fourth (after three consecutive clean stages: 1+0+0+0), yet Dunklee remained in second, 22 seconds behind Dahlmeier and 0.7 seconds ahead of Hauser in third.
“That penalty was a close miss,” Dunklee said. “I knew, ‘Oh, I just go in the penalty loop,’ and I wasn’t too concerned with what that meant.”
When Dunklee exited the penalty loop and headed back out onto the course, she had no idea where she stood. She couldn’t see anybody ahead of her, nor did she know how big the group was behind her.
“I knew I was probably fighting for a podium and I should push as hard as I could,” Dunklee said.
While she felt like she was missing her top-end skiing gear, which she expected at this point in the season, Dunklee used some course tactics to catch two of the five women that passed her at the beginning of the final loop: Hauser and Hildebrand.
“It’s really important to try to get to the front of the pack at the top of that first camel-hump,” Dunklee said of the Pokljuka course. “I was able to pass two people back so I was able to get back into the flower ceremony, which was great.”
Reflecting on the detached feeling she felt on the range, Dunklee said it was a different story out on the course.
“Out on the course, you’ve got to be hungry and you’ve got to be able to push yourself to a different zone,” she said. “I was missing that ability to fight on skis today. I was going at the pace I felt like I could maintain and not getting overly concerned with people passing.”
At the same time, she focused on putting everything she could into a strong finish.
“What was on my mind is, ‘I’m going to feel really bad about myself if I don’t give it everything I have,’ ” she said of her last loop. “… I figured I had nothing to lose.”
Dunklee finished 24.1 seconds behind Dahlmeier (who won her second-straight race) in the top six to reach the flower ceremony for the first time this season. That also met Dunklee’s goal of a top 10 in one of the first two World Cups.
“That was a big goal to put out there. I’m very pleased; I knew it wasn’t a sure thing” Dunklee said.
Acknowledging that she’s never had such competitive results this early in the season, Dunklee explained that she was fueled by some disappointment in Friday’s sprint.
“I was pretty bummed yesterday to get bumped down so far,” she said of crossing the finish first then ending up 11th.
As for her much-improved shooting this season: “It gives me a lot of confidence for sure,” Dunklee said. “The shooting speed has been my number-one focus for this year and much of last year, too … just seeing it pay off is wonderful. It’s very satisfying and it gives me a lot of faith in what I’ve [worked on].”
While Mäkäräinen closed hard in the final 2 k (starting the loop in seventh, nearly 30 seconds behind Dahlmeier), she ended up second and 16.8 seconds behind Dahlmeier, with a total of two penalties (0+0+1+1).
The 25-year-old Puskarčíková held off France’s Marie Dorin Habert by 0.1 seconds for her first World Cup podium in third place (+18.7). Dorin Habert, the 17th starter, settled for fourth, with one penalty (0+0+1+0).
For Dahlmeier, it was her 10th World Cup victory and fifth in a pursuit. Asked what she credited her success to, the 23 year old told German broadcaster ZDF, “Staying cool. My motto is, ‘Scheiß da nix, dann feid da nix’,” (which vaguely translates to “Don’t worry be happy” or “Just do it”).
“That was worth gold today,” she continued. “I was a bit surprised about my two misses in prone. Apparently I already had an aberration in the first stage, then I clicked [adjusted the sights] and was a bit surprised that the two misses still happened.”
She was quick to regroup and cleaned the remaining two stages (0+2+0+0) to finish first in 30:43.1.
“I just try to keep it not too complex,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “… In terms of skiing I didn’t feel quite as springy today, so I had to rely on the shooting. And that worked well for me.”
Asked if her three wins, four podiums, and one fourth-place in five individual races so far this season had sunken in, she said, “No.”
“It’s almost a bit unrealistic, but when looking at the men to [France’s] Martin Fourcade, you know what is possible,” Dahlmeier said. “That is my great goal, to one day be able to have successes comparable to Martin.”
Leading Canada for the second-straight day in 34th, Julia Ransom finished in the same position she started in. After cleaning the first three stages, Ransom moved into 20th and 1:09.8 out of first, but two misses on the final standing put her in 34th at the finish (+2:33.5, 0+0+0+2).
“I was in the top 25ish mix for majority of the race, inching up to 20th before the last shooting bout,” Ransom wrote in an email. “Pursuits are my favourite format so I was actually pretty stoked to jump into the chaos. Everything was great both on the skis and in the range until the focus unravelled a little and I found myself in the penalty loop!
“The field is so tight right now that those mistakes were hard to recover from and get back into the top 30,” she continued. “I am a little bitter-sweet about a second 34th. Happy I’m still in the points but really itching to be in the top 30!”
Also for Canada, Rosanna Crawford improved from 58th to 49th (+4:06.4) with three penalties, all of which came in prone (2+1+0+0), and Megan Tandy did not finish after shooting seven penalties (1+1+3+2). The second U.S. woman in the race, Clare Egan missed six (2+0+1+3) to finish 56th (+5:32.4) after starting 53rd.
With three women and three men in Pokljuka, the U.S. will not field relay teams on Sunday. But they’ll be cheering on the Canadians, Dunklee said.
“I am stoked for our relay team tomorrow,” Ransom said of teaming up with Sarah Beaudry, Crawford and Tandy. “I think we have a great opportunity on our hands and with a little luck, all four of us girls will have solid performances.”
The men’s 4 x 7.5 k starts at 5:15 a.m. EST, and the women’s 4 x 6 starts at 8:30 EST on Sunday. (Stream live at Eurovisionsports.tv).
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.