Go For The Gold: Susan Dunklee

Go For The Gold

BY PEGGY SHINN I JUNE 4, 2013

Susan Dunklee poses for a portrait during the USOC photo shoot
on April 24, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

CRAFTSBURY, Vt. — The clouds were hanging low over the northern Vermont hills, painted spring green. But a steady rain did not deter Susan Dunklee. The only woman on the U.S. biathlon team to qualify for early nomination to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, she headed to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s shooting range for a morning of drills.

“I’m not a natural shooter,” she said, as she set up the sighting scope.

Her accuracy belied her claim. As she worked through the drills, most bullets hit the Oreo-sized prone target 50 meters across a wet field, and only five strayed outside the grapefruit-sized standing target.

But Dunklee is a natural skier — a “tremendous athlete” with “truly a fast ‘engine’,” said U.S. women’s biathlon coach Jonne Kähkönen. For that, she can thank her dad, Stan Dunklee, who was on the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic cross-country ski teams.

“From when she was very little, we realized that we had something special,” said Mr. Dunklee by phone from home in Barton, Vt.

Special indeed. Skiing for Dartmouth College’s NCAA Division I ski team, Dunklee was an All-American and in 2007, helped the Big Green win its first NCAA title since 1976. After graduation in 2008, she took up biathlon. Four years later, she finished fifth at the 2012 World Championships — the best result ever by a U.S. woman at senior worlds in an individual race.

Now, Dunklee is aiming for the U.S. women’s first Olympic medal in biathlon.

* * *

 
Susan Dunklee does shooting drills from the prone position at the
Craftsbury Outdoor Center's biathlon range in late May 2013.
Dunklee practices her standing shots at the Craftsbury Outdoor
Center's biathlon range.

Raised in Barton, a small town in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom where her mom Judi is a veterinarian, Dunklee was on both alpine and cross-country skis when she was 2. She wanted to ski jump too. But her parents didn’t encourage her.

By age 3, Dunklee was riding the alpine ski lift by herself. She loved to ski, even in bad weather. Once, she refused to come inside despite hail hitting her face and stinging her eyes. She just closed her eyes and kept skiing. Until she ran into people standing in the lift line at the bottom.

Dunklee began racing cross-country when she was 7 at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, where she skied with kids like Elsa and Ida Sargent and Hannah Dreissigacker. (Ida Sargent is now on the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team, and Dreissigacker is on the U.S. Biathlon Team.)

"It became a social thing,” said Dunklee. “You want to hang out with your best friends, and they’re skiers too. So you hang out and you train. It’s just what you do and who you become.”

In 2004, Dunklee went to Dartmouth and joined the Ivy’s top-ranked women’s cross-country ski team. (The Sargents and Dreissigacker also matriculated at Dartmouth.) On the Dartmouth campus, Dunklee became known as “Unicycle Girl” because she pedaled the one-wheeled cycle to class, a talent she learned on a camping trip with the Sargents during junior high school.

Senior year, while trying to decide what to do with her ecology degree, Dunklee received an email from James Upham, then U.S. Biathlon development coach, inviting her to a biathlon camp. Dunklee told her dad about the offer. He once considered biathlon as cross-country’s “poor cousin.” But he encouraged her to attend, advising that if she didn’t try it, she would always wonder “what if.”

Although she had never shot a rifle, Dunklee was soon hooked. Shooting gave skiing a “new dimension.” It was also something that her dad had never done — but now wishes he had tried.

“I liked following in his footsteps,” she said. “But I also wanted to be a little independent.”

Success did not come quickly though. Less than two years into the sport, Dunklee missed making the 2010 Olympic team and was crushed. It took another two seasons before she qualified for her first World Cup.

“I had been on the bubble for making a World Cup start for a couple of years and was just on the wrong side of the bubble,” she said. “It was almost a block to me.”

Susan Dunklee competes during the IBU Biathlon World
Championships women's distance on March 7, 2012 in
Ruhpolding, Germany.

Once she qualified in November 2011, she took off like a shot, earning World Cup points in eight races that season. Then, in front of 30,000 biathlon fanatics at the 2012 World Championships in Germany, Dunklee led off the 15km individual race and stayed there for most of the race. She had no idea that she was in the lead until she heard over a loudspeaker, “Surprising race leader so far, American Susan Dunklee.” Adrenaline hit her like a thunderbolt. She ended up fifth — high enough to stand on the podium.

Watching from the stands, her parents were happily “dumbfounded.” To commemorate the race, Dunklee bought a dirndl (a traditional Bavarian dress).

“She is mentally a really tough competitor who can do her very best when it counts,” said Coach Kähkönen.

Dunklee came into the 2012-13 World Cup season with top-10 expectations. But she soon learned that biathlon is a fickle sport. She admits that she “overthinks things a lot,” which can hurt her shooting accuracy. Inexperience can also still affect her performance, like if she pulls the trigger too fast when she lines up to fire.

But she is learning with every opportunity, said Kähkönen, who sees huge potential for Dunklee in biathlon.

Her season began coming around at the 2013 World Championships. On her birthday (Feb. 13), she crashed near the end of the 15km individual race, breaking her rifle’s custom stock, but still finished 15th. The result helped her meet the 2014 Olympic qualifying criteria. And a master craftsman repaired her rifle with wood from a broomstick.

Three weeks later, at the World Cup in Sochi, Dunklee had her best result of the season: seventh in the individual race. The course features steep climbs and very technical downhills and left many biathletes grumbling. Their complaints strengthened Dunklee’s resolve. Thanks to climbing and descending skills honed on Vermont’s hills, she knew the course would suit her well.

Now home for the summer, Dunklee is splitting her time between Craftsbury, where she’s a member of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP), and the U.S. Biathlon Team’s base in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The balance is crucial for the Dartmouth grad. In addition to promoting Nordic skiing and rowing, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center’s mission is to encourage sustainable practices and educate the community, and to protect the surrounding environment. CGRP athletes meet this mission by, for example, tending the gardens or coaching kids in the youth ski program during the summers.

“As a professional athlete, life can be very one dimensional in a lot of ways,” Dunklee said. “I need to have something else that gives me meaning beyond sport.”

Before practicing on that rainy May morning, she freed a trapped and panicked bird from inside the CGRP ski house’s garage by cupping it gently in her hands and carrying it outside. She then did shooting drills and running intervals for two hours before heading to the Outdoor Center’s dining hall to plan an Olympic Day celebration for local youth.

During her own Olympic days next February, Dunklee will try to remember another piece of advice that her dad gave her. “The Europeans put on their pants in the morning the same way you and I do,” he once said.

And they put the medals around their necks the same way too.

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.