PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Just about everyone catches a cold now and then.
But when you’re an athlete at the Olympic Games, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Just ask Susan Dunklee. Team USA’s top female biathlete came down with a cold a couple of days ago and was still feeling the effects Saturday night in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“I’ve had big dreams,” said Dunklee. “I’ve been visualizing this race for years.”
She came into PyeongChang with hopes of becoming the first Team USA medalist in biathlon in Olympic history.
Instead, Dunklee placed 66th out of the 87 entrants with a time of 24 minutes, 13.1 seconds, which was 3:06.9 behind gold medalist Laura Dahlmeier of Germany at the Alpensia Alpine Centre. She missed five targets out of 10, including four from the standing position, with each miss requiring a penalty loop.
“It was very frustrating and very disappointing,” Dunklee said. “Skiing the first lap I think was solid. The prone was pretty good, one miss is decent. I’ll take that. I don’t know what happened in the standing, I missed four. It just was kind of surreal. I finished and I looked up and there was only one target down – not much you can do at that point. Just ski the penalty loops. I often count out loud when I have three or four penalty loops so I don’t lose count going around in circles in the loop.”
But she said the last couple of loops took a toll on her and that her cold “makes a really big difference in an endurance sport like this trying to race through something like that.”
The double whammy from such a tough outing is that the top 60 finishers in the sprint race qualify for the pursuit two days later. And then the sprint, pursuit and individual race, along with world cup rankings, determine who will be in the mass start.
The mass start is the event in which Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win an individual world championships medal. She claimed the silver last year in Hochfilzen, Austria.
“Theoretically I could (qualify),” she said, “but I’d have to have a really, really good individual race.”
Dunklee had a full plate in 2014 in her first Olympic appearance. She was 14th in sprint and her highest individual finish was 11th in mass start. Dunklee was also 18th in pursuit, 34th in individual, seventh in relay and eighth in mixed relay.
When she got to the start of the race – in which entrants take off 30 seconds apart – she said she felt “a little bit in a fog. I was telling myself last night, ‘It’s not ideal to not be at full health.’”
Dunklee even wore a strip on her nose to help her breathe.
But she had confidence in her shooting, which she said felt the best it had all year and was even comparable to last season when she was on a roll after the world championships.
“I told myself it’s way better to have a bit of a cold and have this good confident feeling on the shooting range than it is to be on fire on skis and in a shooting funk,” she said. “So I felt like I was in a good position in spite of it, but unfortunately it didn’t come together.”
She started sixth with the temperature 19 degrees and wind gusts that Dunklee said “felt like you couldn’t move, that you were standing still.”
But as the race progressed, she watched her name slip down the scoreboard as the other athletes finished.
Emily Dreissigacker was the top finisher for Team USA in 51st place and is the only American to qualify for pursuit. Clare Egan was dismayed to finish 61st, one spot away from qualification, while Joanne Reid was 86th.
Dreissigacker had only one penalty with a miss from the standing position and finished with a time of 23:27.2, which was 2:21 behind the winner.
“The skiing conditions were nice, it was hard and fast,” Dreissigacker said. “But it was a little bit windy for the shooting. I think on prone I definitely got kind of lucky and the wind was about the same as what I zeroed in. In standing, I could feel the wind pushing my barrel around a little bit, but it wasn’t anything crazy.”
She said many of the world cup races have more spectators, so the Olympic atmosphere “almost feels a little bit calm, which is kind of nice, honestly.”
Told she was the only American to one advance to the pursuit, Dreissigacker said, “Oh, really? I’m excited to be in the pursuit, but I’m bummed for my teammates.”
Egan said she had “a pretty mediocre race,” which included a fall, to finish in 23:51.6.
Reid was cheerful despite a bad night in which she had more misses than anyone else – seven – and a time of 26:18.
“I’m tired,” she said. “That was actually the worst shooting of my life, so I can’t go much farther downhill from here, so there’s that.”
On the bright side, there was her cheering section, which included her mother Beth Heiden Reid, a 1980 Olympic bronze medalist in speedskating.
“I think she said, ‘Go Joanne’ a bunch of times and probably ‘Hurry up.’ So I tried to,” said Reid, who then waved to her mom in the stands.
“This is biathlon,” Reid said. “It’s brutal mentally. You’ve just got to put it behind you and look to the next race.”
On Sunday, world champion Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke have their turn at becoming the first U.S. Olympic biathlon medalist in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint.
“That’s the great thing about being on a team,” Dunklee said. “If one person’s down, other people can carry the flag, so to speak.”