When the IBU World Cup season resumed after the holiday break, U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee returned to the circuit in Europe with something of a secret weapon.
“His parting words were, ‘Remember to also have fun, Susan,’” Dunklee recalled of her father, Stan, who competed at the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games in cross-country skiing. “It made me realize I’d been taking myself a little too seriously. When I remember to let go of the results, it helps a lot.”
In this case, it helped her achieve better results. Now the 29-year-old from Barton, Vermont, is coming off the best stretch of racing in her career as she leads the U.S. biathlon team into the 2015 IBU World Championships, which begin Thursday in Kontiolahti, Finland.
The 10-day competition opens with the mixed relay — an event in which the U.S. team finished seventh in two world cup outings this winter and hopes to use as a springboard for a strong showing.
“We have some potential in that one,” agreed Dunklee, who skies the leadoff leg.
Joining Dunklee in Finland are six fellow Olympians and the team’s rookie, Wellesley College grad Clare Egan, only in her second year as a biathlete. Hannah Dreissigacker, coming off her best world cup finish (16th in the sprint), and Annelies Cook round out the women’s team.
Lowell Bailey, whose eighth-place finish in the 20-kilometer individual race in Sochi was the best Olympic finish ever by an American biathlete, leads a men’s squad that also includes three-time Olympian Tim Burke, junior world championships bronze medalist Sean Doherty and Leif Nordgren, who has three top-20 placings in world cup races this year.
No American has had a better winter on the circuit, however, than Dunklee, who’s 16th in the world cup overall after three top-10 finishes in a row, including her two highest at Antholz-Anterselva, Italy. She was eighth in the 7.5-kilometer sprint and followed that up a day later with a sixth-place effort in the 10-kilometer pursuit.
The Dartmouth College graduate made her first world cup podium last year in Oslo, Norway, after a breakthrough top-five finish in the individual race at the 2012 world championships.
“I’d love to finish in the top 15 (total) this year,” Dunklee said, “but I always have to remind myself to step back and not let goals like that dictate how I race. When you’re out training in the summer, dreaming about being on the podium gets you through some tough days. But on race days you have to go on the basics.”
Dunklee has climbed from 40th in the total that first year on the world cup circuit to 23rd a year ago. Her top-25 status has allowed her entrée into the mass start races, which are limited to 30 biathletes and thus offer easier scoring opportunities, and she’s improved her shooting percentage dramatically.
“That’s where I had the most potential to improve and still do,” she said. “My percentage is much better than it used to be, but I’m shooting slow compared to my competitors. But that’s a significant change to make — something I’ll work on this summer.”
The U.S. men have had a bit of a roller-coaster season, highlighted by Bailey, Burke and Nordgren each securing three top-20 finishes.
“Things have been tougher than expected in terms of results,” Dunklee said of the U.S. team’s world cup showing this season. “But we’ve seen a little bit of a shift from week to week, one person dropping back and new people leading the way. You really need that as a team. If one person has an off day, another has to pick it up.”
Bailey made his first world cup podium on this same Kontiolahti sprint course three years ago. The 33-year-old Burke is the most accomplished American biathlete in history with six podium finishes in world cup and world championship competition.
The team spent two weeks following the last world cup race in Oslo at a training camp in Sjusjoen, Norway, before a two final days of tune-up at Kontiolahti.
The team gets a day off after the mixed relay before the men’s and women’s sprints on Saturday and the pursuit races on Sunday.
“It’s a long competition,” Dunklee said, “and the key mentally is taking one thing at a time and not six races ahead. So the focus right now is on the mixed relay. It’s the same way with shooting. You might have five targets in front of you, but you’re only thinking about one — that’s what you want to be focusing on.”
The championships will be streamed live on Eurovision and also broadcast on the Universal Sports Network.