OSLO, Norway—Eight World Cup weekends, a swing by Open European Championships, two weeks at the Olympics, and it all came down to this: Susan Dunklee’s last international race of the season was also her first podium of the season, and she’s heading back to the United States with a third-place finish in the 10 k pursuit.
“I’m super happy,” Dunklee said. “I often start feeling stronger and stronger as the season goes on, and this season it took a little longer. I had a lot of sickness, and some frustrating shooting days early in the season that made it hard for me to keep going. I’m really happy right now.”
The World Cup concludes next weekend in Tyumen, Russia, but the Americans are among other teams (including Canada, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine) who are boycotting the event because Russia is not currently compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code.
Dunklee finished fourth in the 7.5 k sprint here at Holmenkollen on Thursday, and started today’s pursuit 35.7 seconds behind sprint winner Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia.
She missed a shot in the first prone stage, and then another in the first standing stage. But Dunklee was never out of the top ten, bouncing around from fifth to tenth. Not a single woman in the field cleaned all 20 targets.
The race for first came down to Kuzmina and Darya Domracheva of Belarus. Both women cleaned their final stage, while Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand and Laura Dahlmeier ahead of them each missed two and fell out of contention. Kuzmina hit the trails with a 1.5-second advantage.
Domracheva caught up to her, and then pulled away on the Hellnerbacken climb coming back to the stadium. She claimed a 9.2 second win by the finish line.
Dunklee came into the final shooting in ninth place. But aside from Kuzmina and Domracheva, all those in front of her missed shots.
She left in third place, but with Fuyuko Tachizaki of Japan hot on her tails.
“She was chasing me and I heard that from the coaches right away as I was leaving the stadium,” Dunklee said. “She is a strong skier, but I was hoping I would have enough strength on that last hill to be able to take her if needed. So I was trying to put a gap on her but it was like, if she catches me, there’s a Plan B.”
Dunklee accumulated about a two-second gap on Tachizaki around the first part of the loop, but just as in the race for first, the decisive move came on the Hellnerbacken.
“I didn’t know who else was back there, and I just hammered up that back hill hoped to keep her and whoever else away,” Dunklee explained.
It worked, and she came into the stadium with a comfortable lead of 8.1 seconds, third place seemingly secured. Dunklee continued hammering up the steep hill behind the shooting range before dropping into the stadium, where she – and the other top finishers, none of them Norwegian – were met with deafening cheers by the crowd in the grandstand.
“I love this crowd,” Dunklee said. “It was great, you know they are always are happy to cheer on their own, but they also cheer on some of the underdogs. That’s kind of neat.
It wasn’t the only support she had out on course, either. None of the other American women qualified for the pursuit. That was disappointing for the team, but meant that they were out in force cheering Dunklee towards the Americans’ first podium of the World Cup season.
“My teammates were out on the course, other girls, Clare [Egan], Em [Dreissigacker], and JoJo [Reid], and Alex [Howe], and that meant the world to me. I saw them multiple times through the loop. All our staff was out there. It was really cool.”
It hadn’t been a perfect shooting race from Dunklee, but as Domracheva and Kuzmina also showed, it’s the last shooting that counts.
“I don’t think that many people had a perfect race out there today,” Dunklee said. ”It’s crazy some days — I mean, it doesn’t really matter what everybody else is doing, you just have to try to put the best race you can. Because sometimes you have a perfect race and five other people do too, and then you are sixth. But some days you don’t have a perfect race and you end up third.”
As Dunklee alluded to, the beginning of her season was marred with disastrous shooting performances. But the last several weeks have seen better shooting, and two penalties was a good tally in the field today.
“I spent awhile this summer with a crazy plan of preparing myself for wind, because I knew that [the Olympics in] Korea could be windy,” Dunklee said. “I was playing with shading, which is a sort of advanced skill that I haven’t done much until this year. And that’s fine in itself, but what it did was it took my focus off the really good speed shooting, which I had going for me last year and worked really well.”
Partway through the season, Dunklee decided to abandon the shading project and go back to basics. Finally, it is starting to pay off.
“I realized half way through this winter that I can’t really keep both at the same time. at least not right now — it might take me a few more years to get there,” she said. “And so right before the Olympics, about two weeks before we went, I kind of switched to my old style. But it takes a while to get the feel for it again. But it was finally back.”
She also was sick several times throughout the winter, including before and during the Olympics, and then after the Olympics when the World Cup moved to Finland. But today her ski speed was back, too; her last loop was the 13th-fastest in the field.
“I feel a lot better than I did yesterday,” Dunklee said. “During the relay I felt kind of flat. But yeah, I often get to my strongest right as the season finishes, that is pretty typical. I think the biggest thing was that I had a cold or some sort of sickness for three or four weeks, through January/February, and that took a lot out of me. I’m finally getting healthy again.”
Dunklee is not sure whether she will keep competing for another season, saying to ask again in a month.
But whether it was the last race of her career or just the last one of the year, Oslo is a special place for her.
“My first podium was here in Oslo, and I believe Darya was ahead of me on the podium on that day too,” Dunklee said. “So it’ s a little bit déjà vu.”
Canada’s Julia Ransom and Rosanna Crawford crossed the finish line together, +4:52.4, after collecting four and five penalties, respectively.
“It was fun that Julia and I — I guess we were disappointed that we both were bad, but it led us to being able to cross the finish line together,” Crawford said. “So that was nice. Celebrate that team.”
Teammate Emma Lunder was lapped and did not finish.
After the finish, the Canadians celebrated Ransom’s retirement with champagne, along with the French women who were celebrating the retirement of Marie Dorin Habert.
Dorin Habert is also not going to Tyumen next weekend, and the Canadians were the first team to announce a boycott of the event.
“I’m disappointed that the IBU has taken away our chance to compete at World Cup Finals, because [IBU President] Besseberg and the IBU have decided not to stand up for clean sport,” Crawford said.
-Harald Zimmer and Ian Tovell contributed
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.