HOCHFILZEN, Austria—Lowell Bailey’s gold medal in the 20 k individual on Thursday was groundbreaking for the U.S. biathlon team.
But Susan Dunklee had come with goals of her own. And if anything, they just got bigger.
“I think back to a few years ago when he got his first podium in Kontiolahti [Finland], and I watched him do that,” Dunklee said. “I thought, he has been doing this for a long time and that’s possible. Then a week later I got my first podium in Oslo. So that thought crossed my head the other day when he won. I was like, huh, maybe I can feed off of this. You just need to get some positive momentum going and it makes it easier for the whole team to do well.”
In Dunklee’s last race of World Championships, the 12.5 k mass start, she performed in a way that was entirely her own. From the very first shooting, the Vermonter asserted that she was the woman to beat.
And while she didn’t match Bailey’s gold, she did end up with silver, the very first individual World Championships medal ever won by a U.S. woman in biathlon.
Starting from bib 17, Dunklee moved into the top ten on the first loop of racing. Then, her moment came: the first prone stage.
Dunklee took just 26 seconds to hit the mat, clean all five targets, and jump back up again. It was the fastest time of the whole field and she left with a 5.1-second lead on the rest of the women.
It was a pattern that would repeat again and again: the others caught Dunklee on the top of the large climb on the back of the course, but then they would ski into the range together, Dunklee would clean with lightning speed, and go out with a gap again.
“I was focusing on skiing patiently today, and efficiently, especially because I was off the front,” she explained. “I didn’t have someone to tuck behind, so I didn’t want to overdo it. I wanted to have something left in the tank on loop four and five. So I thought, I am going to ski relaxed and if they catch me I will just jump in behind them, and if they don’t catch me, well, then I will have an extra gap.”
Dunklee knew that she had a trump card in her pocket: shooting speed. It was something she had been working on all year, and she was determined to shoot both quickly and accurately, making up time on the range.
At her first World Championships, where Dunklee finished fifth in the 15 k individual, she was one of the slowest shooters in the field. Today, she was the absolute fastest over all four stages.
“Repetition and discipline and training will get you to be able to shoot fast in the race,” she said. “And you have to get to the point where you trust that speed is better than shooting slow. That takes a long time, and one of the things that I have done this year is shooting on paper with speed, just to get used to that rhythm, and feel comfortable with that speedy rhythm. It has worked some days in races this year, and then other days it has totally fallen apart. But today it worked.”
And so she came into the final standing stage with three other women, giants in the sport: Laura Dahlmeier of Germany, who had already won four gold medals at this World Championships; Gabriela Koukalova of the Czech Republic, who had won a medal in every individual race so far; and Marie Dorin Habert of France, the winningest athlete of last year’s World Championships.
Dunklee had never cleaned a four-stage race, but she had the confidence of 15 perfect shots behind her.
As soon as the first target turned white, she was on a roll, keeping up the speed and finally getting that 20-for-20. Again, she left in first place.
“I thought, I have to get the hell out of here,” she said of the feeling of hitting the 20th target.
Koukalova and Dorin Habert both missed a shot, leaving Dahlmeier as the lone chaser. (A third woman, Lisa Vittozzi of Italy, cleaned all 20 targets, but was slower on her skis and finished 11th).
“As I was skiing out I kind of looked up [at the scoreboard] saw that I was out and Laura was five seconds back,” Dunklee recalled. “I didn’t see any other names yet, so that’s all I knew, that Laura was dive seconds back. It could be someone else that was close to her but I wasn’t sure.”
Dunklee tried to ski big, but not to wear herself out on the first part of the loop. By the time the loop was halfway through, Dahlmeier had caught her. On the same hill where Dunklee had been caught on earlier loops, Dahlmeier put the hammer down.
“We had this in every loop, where she goes a little bit faster in the shooting range, then we come closer closer and I got her at the highest point,” Dahlmeier said in the post-race press conference. “Then on the last loop, it was going to be the same thing. [I thought], it is possible.”
She skied away; Dunklee couldn’t follow.
“I didn’t quite have it to stick with her,” Dunklee said. “But I didn’t know how far back those other people were, so I as just pushing to hopefully keep a big enough gap so they don’t get any ideas in their head, you know, and chase me down.”
It was a smart move: while Koukalova and Dorin Habert were in the penalty loop, a few other women cleaned the last stage. That set up a battle between Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, Teja Gregorin of Slovenia, Yuliya Dzhima of Ukraine, and the Czech and French stars.
Makarainen skied the fastest last-loop time of the entire field, and claimed bronze (+20.1).
“The first shooting I did a big mistake,” Makarainen said of her one miss in the race. “My finger was breaking early. But I knew that [if] it was my only penalty, I could still fight for the top spots. When I came to the last shooting I knew that the girls were in front of me were strong, but I worked hard in the last loop.”
Dunklee stayed well ahead of her and crossed the line second (+4.6), earning a historic silver medal.
“I had a feeling that [Dahlmeier] would catch me, because it is a lot easier when you are hunting than being hunted,” Dunklee said of not being able to follow the German – who with the medal became the most successful woman at a single World Championships ever – and thus missing out on gold. “Unfortunately I didn’t quite have that today, but I am pretty happy with the race and it gives me something to aim for in the future. Laura is at the top of her game right now, she’s done fantastic under pressure and I don’t think there re many people in the world ever who could have done that.”
Dunklee’s performance was distracting, even mid-race, for teammate Clare Egan. Egan had turned in the best results of her career so far to earn the 30th and last bib in the mass start, her first time ever qualifying for the race.
“I was paying attention to the bigscreen even on my way into my standing,” Egan admitted. “I was listening and I heard that Susan was leading after shooting four. It took the pressure off in a way, I was like, what I am doing right now doesn’t matter at all because Susan is going to medal in this race! Maybe I should have been paying a little more attention to myself,” she laughed.
But perfect focus or no, Egan raced to 24th place (+3:04.4), one of the five best races of her career.
“Luckily I started our last two relays, so I had some experience with mass starts,” she said. “But I still need to work on my standing shooting. I missed my last standing shot both times and I just I don’t have a lot of confidence in my shooting. And as soon as you get defensive you miss. I have a lot to work on, but I am happy — I shot 80%, I was 24th and I am content.”
Maybe it wasn’t a medal, but seeing Egan in the mass start was another accomplishment for a team which has had their best week ever.
Like Dunklee, Egan came from a cross-country skiing background. While Dunklee turned to biathlon immediately after graduating from college, it took Egan a few more years before she decided to make the switch. But the results are starting to come.
“Going into this week I have met none of my goals for the season and I was pretty disappointed,” said Egan. “But I had a lot of support from our coaches, and sports psychologist and my teammates, and turned things around. I can only hope one day I will be as good as Susan, but nobody works harder than she does, she really deserves this and every other victory that she gets.”
For Dunklee, the shooting speed and the results it has brought her have come from not only hard work on the range, but a calm attitude and a diversified lifestyle. Much like Bailey has successfully divided his time between world-class training and personal pursuits, Dunklee became a homeowner this summer and is dedicated to her home community in Craftsbury, Vermont.
“We say I am adulating, I guess,” she laughed. “I definitely like having a little more space. I feel like it has also allowed me feel like I have done my little bit and I have other interesting things going on besides just biathlon. Like the other day I found out that my mailbox got hit by the plow truck. Now I have other things to think about, you know, it’s just its fun.”
In the press conference, Dahlemeier talked about how mountain climbing and having other hobbies that require spending time away from biathlon (and her mobile phone) was essential for her performance. Balance, she said, was good.
“I do have a tendency to focus 100 percent on whatever I am working on at a given time,” she said. “That can be good at certain aspects, but that can also can take over my life, and when things are frustrating or a little disappointing it can be hard for me to distance myself from that. So I need to have other things that I get meaning from.”
— Ian Tovell contributed