When U.S. Biathlon veterans Susan Dunklee (Crafstbury, Vt./Craftsbury Green Racing Project & USABA) and Clare Egan (Cape Elizabeth, Maine/USBA) line up for the opening IBU World Cup races this weekend, they’ll do so knowing they are embarking on the final seasons of their respective biathlon careers. They’ll also begin the campaign with a big burden off their shoulders as both are already qualified for the U.S. Biathlon Team competing at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games in February.
Dunklee, 35, achieved Olympic qualification in March with back-to-back eighth-place finishes at the IBU World Cup in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. She joined Egan, 34, who met the early Olympic qualification standards with a pair of top-10 World Cup efforts last December. Beijing will be Dunklee’s third Olympic Games and will mark the second Games for Egan. Both athletes have indicated the 2021-22 campaign will be their last.
“I’m very excited for my final season,” said Egan. “I hope to feel strong in my races and get some good results, but most importantly to have a good time. I am doing my best to make sure I’m healthy and strong for the whole World Cup season.”
Dunklee was the first American woman to win a world championship medal in an individual event when she took the silver medal in the mass start in 2017. Three years later she became the first U.S. double-medalist at the IBU World Championships by winning silver in the sprint.
“Like any season, I will try my best every time I toe the line, no matter what the race is,” Dunklee said. “I am excited to have one more season to be part of the wonderful international biathlon community and I’m looking forward to new challenges in my post-racing career as running director at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center.”
Although the IBU World Cup circuit is still following strict COVID policies for the safety of all athletes and staff involved, the beginning of this season is noticeably different for the athletes compared to last year’s campaign during the first year of the pandemic.
“This year feels different from last year. We are more relaxed, and there is less talk about the virus,” said Jake Brown (Saint Paul, Minn./Craftsbury Green Racing Project & USBA), who is looking to qualify for his first Olympic team. “We follow the protocols and go on with our day, our training. Thanks to the vaccines, our team has been able to spend more time together, unmasked in common spaces or eating together, for example. We didn't have that luxury last year. Hopefully, whatever the new protocol is on the World Cup, everyone remains healthy…mentally, physically, socially, spiritually.”
Oestersund, Sweden, will play host to the first two IBU World Cups, including an abbreviated two-day opener, Nov. 27-28. The World Cup will remain in Kontiolahti for the second event, Dec. 2-5. The circuit then travels to Hochfilzen, Austria, for the third World Cup event, Dec. 10-12, before the calendar year culminates with the fourth World Cup in Annecy-Le Grand Bornand, France, Dec. 16-19.
“Often the athletes who are smashing the first World Cups are not the ones winning at the end of the season,” Brown noted. “However, we still want to take our performance up a notch from last year even in the initial competitions, since one of our men's team goals is to qualify a fifth quota spot for our team for the Games. To do that we need to move into the top-10 of the Nation's Cup standings. Currently, we sit in 15th.”
When the calendar flips to 2022, there will be three more World Cup events before the Beijing Games. Germany will be the site for the fifth and sixth iterations, with Oberhof playing host Jan. 6-9, followed by Ruhpolding, Jan. 12-16. The final tune-up event before the Olympics will be World Cup #7 in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy, Jan. 20-23.
Once the flame is lit in Beijing, the two-week Olympic Biathlon competition will be contested Feb. 5-19. Following a couple of weeks of post-Olympic recovery, the World Cup season ends with the final threee events in Kontiolahti, Finland (March 3-6), Otepaeae, Estonia (March 10-13), and Olso, Norway (March 17-20).
“Four months of racing are ahead of us,” Brown commented as he prepared for the season. “It's a long time on the road, and it's a demanding time both physically and mentally. My feelings are a polarized blend of anxious nerves and a readied contentedness like I don't know what's coming, but whatever it is, I know I and the team can handle it.”
To follow the U.S. Biathlon Team during the season, check out the Watch Biathlon schedule.