Back in 2008, Susan Dunklee chose to become a biathlete after finishing her collegiate ski career. This was a solid decision both for Dunklee and for the US Biathlon program. With two World Championship silver medals, she is the most decorated biathlete from the U.S. women’s team.
Born and raised in Vermont, Dunklee finds comfort in familiarity. During the offseason, she is based near Craftsbury and can often be found training with her Green Racing Project teammates or in Lake Placid, at the Olympic Training Center, with her cohort on the National Team.
She prefers the slower pace and quietness of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. As this is her last season of racing, Dunklee will retire after this World Cup season, she plans on settling for good, close to Craftsbury.
During her time on the World Cup, Dunklee said in this two-part interview, that although she had concerns about the culture at the International Biathlon Union and the racing scene, she simply preferred to expend her energy on racing, not pushing reforms. We do know that for North Americans racing World Cup, the emotional and physical tax of racing and training is compounded by living abroad for six months.
However, recently, Dunklee signed on as an Athlete Ambassador for the IBU. Dunklee will serve as an ambassador for gender equity, a cause she is passionate about. Rather than leave the details up to a press release, we connected with Dunklee to explore her new role, and what prompted her now to become more involved with bettering the IBU and biathlon. This is part I of the interview. Part II will be released separately.
FasterSkier: I wanted to dig a little deeper than the press release about the Athlete Ambassador initiative and your involvement, but also I’d like to learn about your perceptions of the changing nature of the sport.
So I’d like to get your ideas about what changes have occurred, and what changes remain when it comes to your ideal vision of the sport and the IBU. The IBU had a come to Jesus moment and they’ve made some positive changes — I’ve spoken to Clare Egan quite a bit about it. And Max Cobb off and on, but just generally, what are your impressions of the sport’s culture?
Susan Dunklee: Yeah I was gonna say, absolutely there was a turning point. And that was when our president of many years, Anders Besseberg, was arrested by the Austrian police and there was a raid on the headquarters a few years back. And that caused a whole cascade of changes, and changes to the leadership of the IBU,
They brought in some outside consultants to help the organization identify how to avoid problems of corruption in the future. And they set up the Biathlon Integrity Unit, which is totally separate from the rest of the IBU’s governance that traditionally, I thought, had a lot of authority, and authority over important matters of integrity and doping.
And I think that turning point was when that leadership group left, and they brought in this new way of doing things. Stakeholders took the initiative and rewrote the Constitution to create more integrity and greater transparency. That really set us on a course for a better direction.
In the past, I never really felt like my values and the IBU’s values lined up all that well. And now I really feel like there’s an organization behind my sport that shares a lot of the same values I do. There’s a lot of things that still need to be fixed, but I feel good about the direction we’re headed.
FS: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I do feel like as a parent, I feel we talk about values all the time with our kids, and you know, you have to take a stance sometimes, and there are costs to taking some stances. It could be losing friends. It could be alienating whomever, but if you feel like you’re doing the right thing and it doesn’t hurt other people, you know, physically, emotionally, then you need to do it.
Can you maybe talk a little bit about maybe what your values were or are and how they developed? And in answering that, maybe explain how they contrast with what you perceived as the values of the IBU? I’m qualifying that question within the context of perhaps when you were a younger athlete and you’re kind of looking around and putting your toe in the water and trying to understand what the culture of the sport was and just competing, rather than taking on a leadership role and having that sap some of your energy.
SD: I think for most of my career I wanted to compete and not really distract myself or invest energy in places that weren’t directly related to performance. That’s because it can be exhausting to speak up about some ideas and my values. I really value community and I value honesty. I value having a clean sport. I value making an environment where everybody feels welcome, supported, and valued.
There were periods early on in my career where I felt like we didn’t have that value system in place. It was really frustrating actually when we found out about the stuff that was happening in Sochi a year or two after the fact. With the doping issue on our minds, as athletes, we got together and we had never really organized before. We started to organize at that point, post-Sochi, with a mixed group of international athletes.
We discussed all the relevant athletes’ rights issues, and collectively we were like, ‘hey this is not okay what is going on.” We wanted to know how this happened, and how our international federation was going to deal with us, and the issues we raised.
It became very clear, very fast at most meetings, that the Federation wasn’t really interested in bringing things to light, it was trying to hide things and trying to evade questions. It was trying to not take responsibility for anything. And that was very concerning for me. I definitely started to lose a lot of faith in our Federation at that point. I think a lot of athletes did.
It was really cathartic to see, in the last couple of years, after the raid, the culture started to change pretty fast. And to go from a Federation that I had absolutely no confidence in, to one that wants to do the right thing — and obviously, there’s still work to be done — but I think that being on the right course is important.
FS: Do you have faith in the IBU? There was this seismic moment that everyone can look to in the police raid — that prompted a change. Whereas a lot of other international NGBs are still mired in the typical semi-opaque power and financial hierarchy that dictates policy. Do you think we are in a time now where the IBU can or may serve as a model and these other NGBs won’t need their own take-down before a change is made? I guess, in other words, a horrible event like a police raid or Sochi does not need to occur for change to come about?
SD: I guess it totally depends on the circumstances. Every circumstance is a little bit different. Sometimes you have to gather some momentum to make those acute moments happen and sometimes change happens in a key moment by some smaller gradual incremental moments. But I feel like those acute moments came about because people were starting to put the pressure on. The IBU athletes were starting to organize for the first time, and there were some great people within the organization, and I believe Max Cobb is one of them who were trying to change our values and draw attention to the problematic pieces.
I can’t speak for the change in every sense of the word, but I think it’s possible to come about on different paths. It is tough within an organization, I think, organizational culture can be really, really tough to work with sometimes and to change. It is a huge process. We’ve got a bunch of actors and these different norms. If you take gender equality, or gender equity which is my preferred term and you look at the norms of different countries that we’re working with here. It’s a very different landscape from country to country, say in the U.S, for example, than it might be in say in the Czech Republic, or in Italy,
With all these different cultures, you have to work with different sets of standards and differences in social acceptance. That’s a really interesting puzzle to put together.
FS: I know you are only speaking for yourself, but do you feel like the contingent from the U.S. is perhaps, on the political spectrum, perhaps more liberal than, say, your counterparts from Central Europe, or Eastern Europe, and even Scandinavia?
SD: I certainly cannot speak for every member of my team or my cohort. We do have some voices, I think Clare Egan being on the IBU Executive Board has really pushed them. First of all, she’s on the Athlete’s Committee and that group pushed to get her on the Executive Board for the first time. So that’s a huge progressive change.
So I have a teammate in that position who is certainly pushing for good changes and helping advance the athlete perspective within the international Federation. And I have a teammate, Kelsey Dickinson from the Green Racing Project who is also joining me on the Athlete Ambassador Program, and she too cares about these things. She’s been involved with the Women’s Ski Coaches Association since its inception. So we certainly have people who want to be activists within our team, more so than some other teams.
Part II will be published next week and further explores Dunklee’s motivations for becoming a voice for change, while pursuing the podiums on the World Cup and 2022 Olympics.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.