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Author Archive

Wild Blueberries and World Championships Preparation

31.Jul.2014 by Susan Dunklee

Four years ago, we welcomed a Finn onto the National Team staff when US Biathlon hired Jonne Kähkönen to be our head women’s coach. This summer, he finally got the opportunity to share a full dose of Finnish culture with us when we traveled to Scandinavia for a training camp.

The women’s team spent a week and a half training at next winter’s World Championship venue in Kontiolahti, Finland. Kaisa Mäkäräinen, reigning World Cup overall champion, joined us for most of our training sessions and showed us around while we were in town.

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Training on the Kontiolahti range. Sometimes we had three nationalities represented at practice: Hannah, Katja Yurlova from Russia, Kaisa, myself and Annelies.

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One day we drove to Koli National Park to do some uphill rollerski intervals: 3 times up southern Finland’s biggest “mountain.”

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Mt. Koli wasn’t very high, but it had a gorgeous view. Hannah observed that it felt a lot like Elmore State Park back home.

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Scenic views along the climb. Photo: Jonne Kähkönen

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For a couple afternoon workouts, we did some orienteering. Orienteering is wildly popular in Finland with new courses set up a couple times a week and we decided it would be a good cultural experience. Plus hunting down the controls made a two hour training run go by incredibly quickly.

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Team BBQ night in Joensuu. Clockwise: Hannah, Jani (physio), Kaisa, Erika (Jonne’s wife and our cook this week), Jonne, and Annelies.

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No BBQ is complete without a game of cornhole.

Two factors made it a real challenge to get enough recovery between workout sessions. The first was a blazing Scandinavian heatwave. Our solution to that problem was to swim post workout and any other time the heat started getting to us.

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Annelies enjoying a lakeside swing.

The second challenge was the endless hours of daylight. I had never been in such a far northern place during the summer. The sky stayed light well past my normal bedtime which made me feel wide awake at 11:00. I still haven’t figured out how to adequately deal with that…

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A local newspaper reporter asked me what the best part of summer training camp in Finland was. Wild blueberries of course! Photo: Hannah Dreissigacker

A Need to See Mountains

25.Jul.2014 by Susan Dunklee

One of my favorite things about being a biathlete is traveling to all sorts of interesting places. One of the more frustrating things is not getting to really see them. We get to know our competition venues, our hotel rooms and maybe the neighborhood grocery stores extremely well, but we often don’t see much else due to our competition and training schedules.

This summer, I wanted to truly see one of the cool places we go. We had a National Team training camp in Scandinavia scheduled for July so I flew to Oslo early and spent my recovery week beforehand exploring on my own. I love backpacking and had always dreamed of seeing Norway’s mountains so I spent a few days hiking across Jotunheimen National Park.

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Logistics were simple to plan. The Norwegian hut system provided dinners, breakfasts and sleeping dormitories. I just needed to carry the basics, like clothes, a sleeping bag liner, a map, lunch food and water. Hiking mid-week, I didn’t really need to make reservations ahead of time. The trickiest planning? Figuring out good trailheads to start and end at that would work well with public transportation schedules.

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Hut #1: Songefjellshytta. It was pure coincidence that the most convenient trailhead to begin my hike sat next to one of the country’s main spring xc skiing centers, although one I had never heard of. Biathlon and XC national teams from Norway and elsewhere often visit in June for well groomed snow and precisely salted trails. The owner of the hut told me that he closed the trails for the season only three days before I arrived. I could still see the remains of the ski course on the back side of the lake.

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Jotunheimen, “the home of giants,” is almost entirely above tree line and several of the mountains have glaciers like these ones above Sognefjellshytta.

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It is also the home of lemmings, lots of them. These little critters were everywhere in the rocky tundra. (Photo: www.kolumbus.fi)

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Perhaps my favorite thing to spot was a rare patch of color that jumped out at me during my drizzly first day of hiking.

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Hut # 2: Skogadalsbøen, an oasis of lush, verdant plant life. Unfortunately my camera battery died at this point, so I didn’t get any fun pictures of the people I met. I arrived at the hut in the early afternoon and befriend a group of four Norwegian soldiers. Although everyone I met spoke incredible English, my Norwegian-English pocket dictionary came in quite handy playing a Pictionary-like board game with them. I was able to look up the words on my cards so I knew what picture I was supposed to draw. The guys also taught me a bunch of fun facts about their homeland. For example, Norway’s proud claims to fame include inventing the paperclip and the cheese slicer.

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All trails were blazed with the bright red “T” of the Norwegian Trekking Association. My next day of hiking was marked as 11 hiking hours. Distances on trail maps are marked with hiking hours rather than distance. Back home in the States, experience has taught me that I can usually halve a guide book’s estimated hiking time. Not so in Norway. 11 hours means 11 hours of a fit person moving at a brisk pace and taking very few breaks. I was able to shave off a bit of time, but still put in a long day on the trail.

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Hut #3: Gjendbu. This hut is a popular stop for visitors hiking Norway’s arguably most picturesque hike over the Besseggen ridge. I stayed at the hut but avoided hiking Besseggen due to large holiday crowds. (Photo: www.gjendebu.com)

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Lake Gjende from above. Most of the lakes and streams contain glacial “rock flour” which lends them a turquoise tint. Also in this picture, notice one of the only forested sections of Jotunheimen National Park. (Photo: www.gjendebu.com)

Mountain time is great for the soul. I left Jotunheimen feeling refreshed and relaxed, having met many friendly and fascinating hikers at the huts and having spent quality hours alone on the trails. Norway is certainly a place I could see myself returning to again and again for more outdoorsy adventures, but for now I’m ready to return to the highly structured biathlon lifestyle.

America’s biggest fans in Lillehammer

20.Jul.2014 by Susan Dunklee

It’s time for the biathlon national team’s annual European training camp. We will spend the next three weeks training at various locations across Scandinavia. I flew over a week early to enjoy some time on my own first. I did a four day hiking trip through Norway’s highest mountains (check back soon for photos) and visited some American friends living in Lillehammer.

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Greta and Henrik, US Biathlon’s 2 newest fans

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It’s a mini Ida Sargent!

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Greta’s school assignment during Sochi- draw your two favorite Olympic heros- hangs framed on the wall, complete with phonetic spelling.

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Greta made sure I had a good visit to Lillehammer- she showed me the ’94 Olympic ski jump (we counted over one hundred and thirty-ten steps walking up), the Maihaugen open air museum, and she warned me about the local trolls who live in the mountains.

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I also lucked out by visiting in prime raspberry season.

Greta sent me off with a fresh jar of homemade raspberry jam that she made. She doesn’t realize it, but I think Greta will have two new fans of her own as soon as I share the jam with my teammates Hannah and Annelies. We all love fresh raspberry jam!

Thanks for a wonderful visit Erik, Emily, Greta and Henrik! I hope to come back again soon.

In the Mix

10.Mar.2014 by Susan Dunklee

I know how to deal with race nerves. I’ve probably competed in over 500 skiing and running races over the course of my life. However, the intensity of pressures I felt before my first Olympic race in Sochi threw me off balance.

It all caught up to me a couple days before Opening Ceremonies. With unreliable shuttle services, we often ended up walking, or rather hiking, between the venue, the cafeteria and our chalet, logging up to 2 extra hours of exercise per day. No matter how well I planned, I was always running behind. I hate being late. We had interviews, team meetings, training, drug tests, and inspection times for race equipment. I quickly gave up staying on top of all my emails and messages, realizing that the energy would better directed towards the races.

And the pressure of races themselves- talk about butterflies! Years of training and preparation that all comes down to a few minutes. The world was watching and I could feel the eyes of Vermont’s entire Northeast Kingdom. Over the past year, I’d had mounting expectations, self-imposed and otherwise. And dreams… The US has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, it is our nation’s last frontier for the Winter Games. Everyone in the American biathlon community is aware of how far one Olympic medal could go to develop the sport in our country.

Four days before the first race, the anxieties, the exhaustion, and the nerves hit me all at once. We were doing our last important interval workout, and I was running late, again. I nearly missed my assigned start. I frantically threw my rifle onto my back and began skiing without fully understanding what the workout was supposed to be. I was mad at myself for being late and mad at the coaches for not giving clearer instructions ahead of time. I skied fueled by anger, but even more by pent up anxiety from the past days. I thought about how poor quality this last crucial training session was turning out to be as I thrashed around the course on my skis. Then I thought about how detrimental my current attitude was for my upcoming racing, which of course didn’t help. Midway through the intervals, the anxiety manifested itself physically and I started hyperventilating.

The severity of my reaction shocked me as I had never experienced anything quite like that. Normally I am very stable in high pressure situations and my head has always been my strongest asset as a competitor. The good news was that I had four days left to get back on my normal track again. And I had a wonderful staff of coaches and our sports psychologist to help me.

It is not usual for athletes at the Olympics to have moments of freakouts. The trick is to look forward and refocus when they happen.
One of my first tasks was to remember what my job was. It wasn’t to win a medal or achieve a certain result; it was a lot simpler than that. My job was to perform well. If I could do that, the results would take care of themselves. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to do anything special on race day; I only had to do exactly the same thing I did in practice every day for the past several years.

Performing well requires focusing on the process of what you are doing rather than on the result. (Easier said than done!) Take shooting for example. Worrying about hitting targets while shooting can create extra muscle tension. It can also distract the mental focus away from important elements of the shooting process, like trigger squeeze and follow through. When stray thoughts enter your head, it is important to refocus to the task at hand: setting up a relaxed shooting position on the mat or feeling the pressure of the trigger against your finger.

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Shooting well requires being 100% focused on the task at hand. Photo: Getty Images.

Over the next few days, I found my normal prerace routines again. I decided that my key word for the Games would be “patience” because it applied to so many things that I was working on. I could be patient on the course and find the most efficient ski technique. Thinking about patience at the shooting range could help me relax and allow the shooting to feel more automated. If (when) unexpected obstacles came up, I could patiently adapt to deal with them. With results, I’d be patient too: I’d work on the tasks at hand and trust that over the course of the Games, something would come together for me.

I was still incredibly nervous at the start line of my first Olympic competition, the 7.5 km sprint. However, I discovered that I could set the tone for the race in the first 100 m after departing from the start gate. Rather than applying a maximum effort to accelerate to full speed immediately, I focused first on finding a smooth rhythm on skis. “Be patient,” I reminded myself. Soon I was skiing very efficiently, carrying forward momentum with each glide. Even the unusual experience of hearing hundreds of camera clicks going up the first hill couldn’t pull me from the zone. As the race progressed, I constantly evaluated the terrain and snow conditions and adjusted my ski technique accordingly, as I had planned with my coaches beforehand. We knew that the real gains or losses on skis would be made on the final pitches of the course’s long climb where everybody would be feeling tired, so I held back from skiing at my full effort until I hit that critical section.

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Photo: Competitive Images/USBA

The feeling of control on the ski course also carried over to a relaxed and confident feeling as I approached the shooting range. My shooting felt very automatic and routine, just like in training. I “cleaned” the prone stage, hitting all five. The last stage, standing, felt smooth as I knocked down the first four targets. Only one was left. I took a normal breathe, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The shot landed just outside the target, which meant I had to make a single visit to the penalty loop.

I was having a fantastic race in spite of the penalty and smiled at myself, but I also knew that one mistake, occurring in just a fraction of a second, had cost me a truly extraordinary result. What I didn’t know at the time was exactly what that result would have been. Turns out had I hit that last shot, I could have walked away with the silver medal that day. Instead I placed 14th. It was close.

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The missed shot is the mark closest to the target at 10 o’clock. Photo: Fasterskier.com

But that is the nature of biathlon; there is usually a very tiny amount separating a great performance from a perfect performance, but that difference can look huge on the results sheet. It was incredibly empowering to realize I had been legitimately “in the mix” for an Olympic medal. And it was humbling to realize that 9 other athletes had come just as close because they also would have stood on that podium, had they only hit one more target.

This past summer, our coaches often had us do a “podium test” shooting drill, in which we imagined we were at a World Cup, or the Olympics, and fighting for a medal. The goal was to hit a certain percentage of the targets in under in a certain amount of time, which they had calculated would be a medal-winning performance for us. The purpose of the drill was to prepare us so we would feel ready and confident in that situation. During our second Olympic race, the pursuit, I was once again in medal contention during the last shooting stage. I entered the range immediately behind the 3rd and 4th place athletes. We had a head-to-head shooting battle, the most exciting and high pressure type, and unfortunately I finished with some trips around the penalty loop and lost several places. It was a disappointing ending, but after the race one of my coaches was quick to point out that I had gotten to do a “real, live podium test at the Olympics.” Pretty cool.

The next couple weeks were a blur with a lot more racing and some truly exciting moments. We had some very strong finishes on the team. Lowell got a top 10, Hannah improved her best World Cup result by over 30 places, and we posted a 7th place in the women’s relay, our highest placing yet. That may have been our best result ever, but it was far from our best performance. we used 13 extra rounds to hit our targets that day, as opposed to 4 and 8 in our other two relays this year, which left us wondering, “what if?”

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The massstart where I notched my best result and placed 11th. Photo: Fasterskier.com

I left Sochi feeling great about my own performances. I did struggle under the pressure a few times and my attitude occasionally got off-track, but I learned that I could refocus before each new race. I posted high results, the best ever for a US woman biathlete (although there is still plenty of room for improvement). My Olympic shooting percentage was more consistent than normal and I felt fearless on skis, ready to challenge anyone. Most of all, I am proud that I was able to truly be myself during much of the Olympics and enjoy the thrill of competing on the world’s biggest stage. I left Sochi hungry for more racing and couldn’t wait for the regular World Cup season to resume.