On Friday morning, Susan Dunklee woke up with a cold. A mild one, but enough to dull the nervous system and wreak havoc on her shooting, she feared. But she had a race ahead of her, the first of hopefully three this weekend, and the US Biathlon veteran forged ahead with her race-day routine in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“Once I started warming up, I felt mentally awake and ready,” Dunklee recalled in an email to FasterSkier. “The crowd here is electrifying and their energy carried me.”
About an hour after the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint, Dunklee was a sure thing for the podium. She had started 23rd out of 96 in the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup field, and finished first, 11.4 seconds ahead of Laura Dahlmeier. Laura Dahlmeier, the German who won the last three races in Pokljuka, Slovenia, last week (including a relay)? Yep, Dunklee beat her.
With the likes of last week’s sprint runner-up Justine Braisaz of France, Italy’s Dorothea Wierer and France’s defending World Cup champion Marie Dorin Habert behind her (and the list went on from there), Dunklee was in a very good spot. But a hot one, too.
“Biathlon is so unpredictable that I never trust in the result until all the racers are finished,” Dunklee said. “Last week with clean shooting in the sprint I watched my result drop from 1st to 11th, so I kept my expectations tempered today.”
Also last week, Dunklee placed fifth for a career-best pursuit result. So a podium, even a victory, was definitely within reach. She was first bumped to second place by Russia’s Tatiana Akimova, who started 37th and hit all 10 of her targets — just like Dunklee. Akimova took her time on the range but notched the eighth-fastest overall course time to take the win — her first ever and also her first World Cup top 10 — in 21:58.9 minutes.
France’s Anaïs Chevalier started 68th and came within 4.3 seconds of Akimova’s time for second, which bumped Dunklee another step down to third. But after all 96 finishers had crossed the line, Dunklee remained on the podium, ahead of not only Dahlmeier (fourth), Braisaz (sixth), Wieier (seventh), and Dorin Habert (11th), but ahead of Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen (fifth), France’s Anaïs Bescond (eighth), Norway’s Fanny Horn Birkeland (ninth), and Germany’s Franziska Preuss (10th), all in the top 10.
It was Dunklee’s first podium this season and the third of her career. She has placed second once (last season in Presque Isle, Maine) and third twice (also in Olso, Norway, in March 2014) — all in sprints.
On Friday, she was 5.1 seconds out of first and 0.8 seconds out of second place. Asked how close she feels to the win and that next career mark, Dunklee replied that it was palpable.
“I know I am close and that it is reasonable to fight for a win on any given day,” she wrote. “The most important thing is to keep my focus on performing well and controlling what is within my power. The results will take care of themselves.”
Few people would have predicted the women’s podium on Friday. Three athletes who had managed to shoot clean in both the prone and standing shooting stages stood at the top, while the presumed favorites all had to ski at least once through the penalty lap and ended up off the podium during the flower ceremony.
At the end of the race, it was Akimova, Chevalier and Dunklee, with Dunklee smiling broadly as she looked out to the crowd.
Starting early in the field, Dunklee had avoided the penalty lap in both of her shooting stages, and with the 15th-fastest overall course time, she had finished with the new time to beat: 22:04 minutes. Dunklee skied into the finish just a few seconds after Dahlmeier, who briefly held the lead despite two penalties.
“I left the range after standing just as Laura was leaving the penalty loop and I heard over the loudspeaker that we had the first and second splits so I knew I was having a good race,” Dunklee recalled. “When my ski form is on, I fight like hell to stick with a ride like that, but I just didn’t have it today. Instead I tried to keep her in sight as long as I could on that last loop.”
She ended up beating Dahlmeier by more than 11 seconds. When Dunklee came to a stop and saw her No. 1 position on a video wall, she raised her arms and waived to the thousands of cheering spectators in the stands.
Then her long waiting period began, with more than 70 athletes who could challenge her position behind her.
For the next few minutes Dunklee held her place at the top, with Mäkäräinen skiing very fast, but also incurring two penalties to finish in fifth (1+1, +18.2). The next challenger was home-crowd favorite Gabriela Koukalová of the Czech Republic, who had posted the best time after the prone stage prompting a huge roar by the audience. But then the usually sound shooter went on to miss three targets in her standing stage, zapping the energy out of the stadium, and she ended up 13th (0+3, +36.8). Notably, Koukalová skied the fastest course time, despite a spill on the last downhill.
Then, starting one position behind Koukalová and thus out of the focus of the international TV cameras for most of the race, Akimova emerged as a podium contender with perfect shooting. On the final lap she managed to virtually overtake and create a small lead on Dunklee, at the first split time by only 0.9 seconds, but by the end of the loop, the Russian crossed the line in a time of 21:58.9, 5.1 seconds ahead of Dunklee.
France’s Bescond was the next athlete to shoot clean in both stages, but was slower on the course and ended up eighth (0+0, +24.8).
And even later in bib 68, Bescond’s teammate Chevalier emerged as the last athlete with a chance at the podium. She left the standing stage in first place with a small lead of 1.3 seconds on Dunklee, but lost some ground on the final loop. Chevalier pushed hard in the finishing stretch, and while it was not enough to beat Akimova, she remained 0.8 seconds ahead of Dunklee for seconds place (0+0, +4.3).
During the press conference, Dunklee was asked if she was happy or sad about her position on the podium, after she had looked like the potential winner for a few minutes.
“I am very happy,” Dunklee replied. “Last week I crossed the line in first and slipped back all the way to 11th [despite] clean shooting, and this is quite an improvement over that. You never know with biathlon whether you are gonna hold a position when you cross the finish line. It’s just too unpredictable.”
Questioned if she believed she was now close to her first win, Dunklee shrugged and smiled: “Maybe. Hopefully it will happen this year.”
Dunklee said the atmosphere in the arena with more than 29,000 fans in attendance gave her additional motivation.
“Nove Mesto is one of my favorite venues to race at. The fans here have more energy than anywhere else,” she said at the press conference. “Like, we’re talking, all over the course, not just the stadium, but out on the trails … It’s electrifying.”
For the 26-year-old Akimova, it was not just her first World Cup victory, but even her first time on the podium and first time in the top ten (except for relays). That said, she wasn’t totally out of the blue, after winning the IBU’s “rookie of the year” award last season.
“Of course I did not really expect this,” Akimova said via a translator during the press conference. “And I am really happy and thrilled right now. As usual I just went into the race wanting to do my best … It was just a combination of different things that all came together today and made me win.”
Later questioned by journalists about the current controversy surrounding the Russian team in the wake of the McLaren report, Akimova stated, “I hope that everything will turn out good. Of course I am clean.”
After placing 11th in the previous World Cup sprint, Dunklee used her opportunity to comment to discuss the McLaren report, rather than the race. On Friday, when asked about how she felt about sharing the podium, she said she was still “deeply saddened by the McLaren report and all that it implies.”
“It will be a long time before Russia can earn the sporting community’s trust again,” Dunklee wrote. “The IBU is currently investigating all the McLaren evidence and it is likely there will be massive shake ups, not just in this year’s results but from the past several years. No matter what may happen in the future I feel great about my performance today and the manner in which I earned it.”
Intensively celebrating her second place after the race and the flower ceremony, it was also the first World Cup podium for the 23-year-old Chevalier, improving on an eighth place in a pursuit in Kontiolahti, Finnland, during the 2013/2014 season. Chevalier spent most of last season on the second-tier IBU Cup, and she started this World Cup season with individual finishes outside the top 30.
“I changed a lot of things,” Chevalier explained her new career best during the press conference. “Because the beginning of my season was complicated. I did not expect these bad results. So I am very happy today to shoot clean…”
Asked if she believed her later start group might have been an advantage, Chevalier said, “I don’t think so. The track was very hard. So I don’t think the last bib [among the podium finishers] was an advantage.”
Due to two misses in her standing shooting stage, overall World Cup leader Dahlmeier finished off the podium in fourth (0+2, +16.5). But with none of the other favorites on the podium, either, she was not too disappointed about this outcome of the race day.
“It’s also nice if not the same people are always standing at the top, but if the field is ragtag mixed,” she told German broadcaster ARD during a post-race interview. “That’s the exciting thing about biathlon. So it’s nice that today others are standing on the podium.”
Ransom 26th, Five North Americans in Top 60
Among the first out of the gate in bib 6, Julia Ransom led Canada with a season-best 26th place (+1:06.5) thanks to a clean prone shooting and only one miss in standing (0+1). She skied the 43rd-ranked course time on her way to the fourth-best individual World Cup result of her career. Ransom has previously placed 19th twice — in the sprint at her home World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, and in a pursuit in Antholz, Italy — and 20th in the individual race at 2016 World Championships in Oslo, all last season.
Her teammates Rosanna Crawford and Megan Tandy finished half a minute behind her in 37th (1+1, +1:30.0) and 44th (1+0, +1:34.8), respectively. The fourth Canadian, Emma Lunder, who replaced Sarah Beaudry for this World Cup, finished 82nd (2+0, +3:02.2).
Dunklee’s teammate Joanne Reid notched her best sprint result in 52nd (0+1, +1:46.5) to qualify for Saturday’s pursuit. It is also her third-best result after a strong start to this season in Östersund, Sweden, where she placed 29th in the individual race and 47th in the pursuit.
The third American, Clare Egan finished 62nd (+1:59.4) despite skiing the 33rd-ranked course time due to three penalties (2+1). Egan missed the top 60 qualification for the pursuit race by 1.6 seconds.
The times back to the winner from Friday’s sprint carry over into the pursuit race on Saturday, with a mass start of the 30 top-ranked athletes in the World Cup standings following on Sunday.
“The pursuit, I like that the best, that’s my favorite race,” World Cup leader Dahlmeier told ARD when asked about Saturday’s pursuit. “Especially here in Nove Mesto I have had good pursuit races in the past. So I am already incredibly excited for the race tomorrow.“
“This is a great position,” Dunklee said at the press conference. “The important thing is not to think too much about it and keep executing a good performance plan, like every other race.”
The women’s pursuit starts at 11:40 EST on Saturday, following the men’s 12.5 k pursuit at 9 a.m. EST. Watch both races live on Eurovisionsports.tv.
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- Anais Bescond
- Anaïs Chevalier
- Clare Egan
- Dorothea Wierer
- Emma Lunder
- Gabriela Koukalová
- Joanne Reid
- Julia Ransom
- Justine Braisaz
- Kaisa Makarainen
- Laura Dahlmeier
- Marie Dorin Habert
- McLaren Report
- Megan Tandy
- Nove Mesto 7.5 k sprint
- Nove Mesto IBU World Cup
- Nove Mesto sprint
- Rosanna Crawford
- Susan Dunklee
- Tatiana Akimova
- US Biathlon
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.