Susan Dunklee had been looking for something all season, a sort of spark. And while the U.S. biathlete hadn’t necessarily found it on Thursday, she had still pulled off fourth place in the women’s 7.5-kilometer pursuit at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Oslo, Norway.
“I feel like right now I’m relying on good habits to carry me through the rest of the season,” Dunklee, 32, of US Biathlon, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Normally you need more than just that, you need that spark.”
The spark had fueled her to a silver medal in the mass start at last year’s IBU World Championships. It had helped her reach the podium in four individual World Cup races of her career, twice in second place and twice in third place. Thursday marked her third time placing fourth in a World Cup, and it was her best result of the 2017/2018 season after she finished sixth in a December pursuit in Annecy, France.
Last year in Oslo, Dunklee placed seventh in the sprint. They year before, she finished eighth in the 2016 Oslo World Championships sprint at the Holmenkollen biathlon venue.
On Thursday, she shot clean (hitting all 10 of her targets) and finished 35.7 seconds behind the winner, Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina, and 6.5 seconds out of third, which went to Ukraine’s Yuliia Dzhima.
The race was Dunklee’s last World Cup sprint of the season, since US Biathlon (along with several other teams) is boycotting next week’s final World Cup in Tyumen, Russia.
“I feel like that spark has been missing a little bit so I was really surprised to be able to put this one together,” she said. “But maybe there was too much spark, maybe I wanted things too much and now I’m finally kind of letting go a little bit and that’s what I needed to do all along.”
A two-time Olympian who raced at five World Championships, Dunklee has been competing internationally in biathlon for the last nine years after a relatively late start in the sport. The daughter of Stan Dunklee, a two-time Olympic cross-country skier, she started skiing at age 2 but didn’t learn to shoot until age 22 when she joined US Biathlon’s development program after graduating from Dartmouth College.
And despite currently being the veteran member of the US Biathlon women’s team, Dunklee said she still gains a great deal from her younger teammates. Clare Egan, 30, who switched from cross-country ski racing to biathlon five years ago, raced to a career-best 13th in last week’s sprint in Kontiolahti, Finland.
“I was definitely inspired by Clare’s race last week,” Dunklee said. “I’ve never seen her so composed and confident out mixing it up with the top ladies in the field and that got me excited for the team. … I often feed off of other people performing well.”
US Biathlon had another breakthrough on Thursday when Sean Doherty finished 14th in the men’s 10 k sprint later in the afternoon in Oslo. It was his season best as well and just one place short of tying his career-best individual World Cup result of 13th (which he achieved in a sprint during the 2015/2016 season in Presque Isle, Maine).
“Sean just had his best result of the season today, so the whole team’s kind of rounding into form just in time,” Dunklee said of the season’s end.
Kuzmina, who won the women’s race in 21:31.8 minutes with one prone penalty (1+0), started the sprint a minute and a half behind Dunklee, who headed out of the gate in bib 10. Despite cleaning both stages, Dunklee knew she was in second on her final loop after hearing about the kind of race Kuzmina was having. The Slovakian posted the fastest overall course time to overcome her early penalty and beat Belarusian Darya Domracheva, who shot clean, by 8.9 seconds. Dzhima also shot 10-for-10 (as did the rest of the top-seven women) and finished 29.2 seconds off Kuzmina’s winning time.
While Dunklee initially finished first and was bumped to second by Kuzmina just under a minute later, she knew there were plenty of later starters capable of strong performances that could bump her off the podium. Considering that, Dunklee, who skied the 18th-fastest course time and had the 14th-fastest range time, said she was “very happy” to finish in the top six and earn flower-ceremony recognition.
Asked how she felt about the last races of the season, Dunklee said she was trying not to overthink it.
“I’m not looking at it like this is the last sprint, I’m looking at it like, well, just one more,” she said. “I’m going to try to put everything I can into doing the best I can this weekend because there’s nothing else to save it for.”
While Dunklee will start Sunday’s 10 k pursuit 36 seconds back in fourth based on her sprint result, her three teammates missed the sprint top 60 required to qualify for the pursuit. Egan finished 68th (+2:44.8) with three penalties (1+2), Joanne Reid was 75th (+3:02.2) with three misses (1+2) and Emily Dreissigacker placed 83rd (+3:24.8) with three penalties (2+1) as well.
Meanwhile, three Canadian women qualified for the pursuit. Rosanna Crawford placed 38th (+1:51.8) with one standing penalty (0+1), Julia Ransom was 46th (+2:10.1) with one miss (0+1) and Emma Lunder in 57th (+2:28.2) with one penalty (0+1) as well. Also for Canada, Sarah Beaudry finished 84th (+3:30.7) with three penalties (1+2).
In the men’s sprint that followed, Doherty was one of nine in the top 14 that shot clean, and he finished 47.1 seconds out of first. Norway’s Henrik L’Abée-Lund won the race with perfect shooting for his first World Cup win with a time of 26:10.3.
Four years ago, Doherty made his World Cup debut in Oslo, where he finished 82nd in the sprint. He explained in an email that he has fond memories of the venue.
“The skiing on and off the race course is fantastic and it’s always a special atmosphere,” wrote Doherty, now 22.
He started in the middle of the field in bib 53 and kept himself competitive with the race leaders with flawless shooting and the 33rd-ranked course time. His overall range and shooting times ranked 24th and 26th fastest, respectively.
Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, who started 30 seconds behind him in bib 54, went on to finish second, 6.1 seconds behind L’Abée-Lund. Bø led throughout the race even after skiing a penalty lap after his standing stage (0+1), but lost time to his teammate, L’Abée-Lund, on the last loop.
“That’s what you hate, being in the lead after the last shooting and not in the lead in the finish,” Bø told German broadcaster ARD after in an English interview. “It’s not the best feeling, but I fought with what I had, just wasn’t enough.”
“He was a great marker for me to chase,” Doherty said of Bø. “After cleaning heading out onto the [last] loop I knew I was having a good one.
“I felt strong skiing today, which in turn helps your confidence on the range,” Doherty continued. “As for the good shooting I have been working on some good things in the days leading up to today and I was able to execute my race plan on the range as I wanted. Which I am very happy about.”
He was pleased to put together a complete race in the last sprint of the season, especially considering how it sets him up for Saturday’s 12.5 k pursuit.
“It feels good to end the season on some good momentum and it is fun to be towards the top of a extremely competitive field,” Doherty said. “Now I am just looking forward to the possibilities of the pursuit.”
In the pursuit, L’Abée-Lund will start six seconds ahead of Bø in second and seven seconds ahead of France’s Martin Fourcade in third. Fourcade placed third on Thursday, 6.9 seconds back, after shooting clean but falling and breaking a pole on a downhill.
“I just tried to push one more time in the downhill to get more speed and I pushed aside my ski, I fell, I broke my pole, and I lost seconds for the victory today,” Fourcade told ARD in English. “It’s a good place close to Johannes [for the pursuit], but today wasn’t my time.”
Austria’s Julian Eberhard, who placed fourth, just 0.2 second behind Fourcade, will start the pursuit at the same time as Fourcade.
With one race to go, Fourcade leads the overall World Cup Total Score standings by 37 points over Bø in second.
“It will be tough, it will be almost impossible,” Bø said of beating him. “Today I was ahead but I have to beat him in every race and actually make more points [than him].”
A total of four American men qualified for Saturday’s pursuit, with Lowell Bailey finishing 42nd (+1:41.1) with two penalties (0+2)), Leif Nordgren 43rd (+1:43.3) with one miss (0+1) and Tim Burke 57th (+2:12.8) with four penalties (2+2). In his second World Cup start, Alex Howe finished 89th (+3:39.5) with four misses (3+1).
For Canada, the Gow brothers qualified for the pursuit, with Scott Gow placing 49th (+2:02.1) with one penalty (0+1) and Christian finishing 56th (+2:12.3) with clean shooting. Brendan Green finished 71st (+2:31.3) with two penalties (1+1) and Macx Davies was 96th (+4:27.2) with four penalties (2+2).
In the women’s World Cup Total Score, Kuzmina leads by just six points over Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen.
“There is no special secret,” Kuzmina said of her five World Cup wins and Olympic gold (in the mass start) this winter. “It’s hard work before the season, good work together with my team, great support from my family and that is all.”
Born in Russia and the sister of Russian biathlete Anton Shipulin, she said she’s looking forward to the Tyumen World Cup.
“Tyumen is my home, where I was born, and I am really really excited for the time there and to see my family,” she said.
Racing in Oslo continues with the women’s relay and men’s pursuit on Saturday, followed by the women’s pursuit and men’s relay on Sunday.
— Chelsea Little and Harald Zimmer contributed reporting