Susan Dunklee

Susan Dunklee 4th in Antholz sprint, best women’s biathlon World Cup finish ever for U.S.

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When Susan Dunklee woke up this morning, her outlook was positive, as always, but something felt different.

“I don’t typically buy into gut feelings because you can set yourself up for failure when you want it too badly,” Dunklee said. “But when I woke up and went on my morning jog, I really felt like all of the pieces were going to come together.”

For the first time in her career, everything clicked for Dunklee.

The 26-year-old Vermont native survived the tough skiing conditions at altitude and was exceptional in the shooting range to finish fourth in the women’s 7.5km sprint in Antholz, Italy, the best-ever World Cup finish by an American female biathlete, in the final event before the Sochi Olympics.

The race was won by Anais Bescond of France, her country’s first World Cup winner as an individual competitor since Sandrine Bailly in March of 2008. Bescond crossed in 20:30.2. Germany’s Andrea Henkel finished second in 20:36.9. Darya Domracheva of Belarus was third in 20:40.3, six-tenths ahead of Dunklee.

Behind Dunklee, the next highest American finisher was Sara Studebaker, who came in 57th. Annelies Cook finished 70th while Hannah Dreissigacker was unable to finish.

“Finishing a half second off the podium is probably the most exciting part of the performance,” Dunklee said in a phone interview after the race. “It’s good motivation. As for it being the best finish ever by an American, I think it might be a while before that sinks in. But I always knew I was capable of these types of results.”

Indeed, this wasn’t the first time that Dunklee has flirted with the top of the event standings. In 2012, she finished fifth in the women’s 15km individual in Ruhpolding, Germany.

“Today was similar to Ruhpolding in a lot of ways,” she said. “You’re doing your thing for the first loop and then in the last loop you start getting the splits from your coaches and an awareness of where you stand out on the course. It’s kind of a surreal sensation, especially when your body is hurting like crazy and you’re fighting for every second.

“But I think the experience in Ruhpolding helped me today in terms of being able to handle the pressure of knowing where I was sitting. In Ruhpolding, I remember hearing that I was in first place at one point and I got this shot of adrenaline to the heart that almost stopped me cold. Today, hearing my position, everything felt more routine.”

Where Dunklee was particularly strong in Antholz was with the rifle in her hand. She shot clean through the prone stage, hitting all five targets with no misses, to position herself inside the Top 10. But it was her clean shooting in the standing stage — only 21 of 100 finishers shot cleanly on their feet – which put her in medal contention. She was just three-tenths behind Bescond after the second shooting stage.

“I’ve actually been struggling a lot recently with my standing shooting,” Dunklee said. “I would shoot cleanly through prone and set myself up for a nice result but then miss a couple targets standing and have to ski the penalty loops, which is disappointing. It’s been like that for two or three weeks now, but today I felt more like I was out hunting the targets. In practice the last couple of days I was really relaxed and hitting all of my targets. So I just focused on the process and tried to make things as routine as possible.”

That process – things like taking the rifle off your shoulders, finding a good spot on the mat, feeling the pressure of the trigger – included the added step of taking additional breaths before pulling the trigger because of the physical stress felt skiing at altitude in Antholz. Dunklee said that same principles will apply at the Sochi Games, where the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center is at 5,905-feet of elevation.

Dunklee added that the similarity between these two courses ends there.

“The course is quite different in Sochi,” she said. “The climbs here are not as long and steep as they will be at the Olympics. I am actually better at long grinding climbs that separate the field. Today’s key was more about working on getting transitions right.”

With the start of the Olympics now three weeks away, Dunklee said her performance should provide her with a boost of confidence.

It will undoubtedly also be seen as another positive sign, along with Tim Burke’s silver medal at the 2013 World Championships, that the U.S. might be poised to win its first ever biathlon medal in the sport at the Games. It is the only sport in which the U.S. has failed to do so.

“It’s an interesting discussion I have had a lot with our USOC sports psychologist,” Dunklee said. “It’s nice to be an underdog and not get a lot of media attention, but on other hand it is good to be in this position and get practice dealing with pressure and the confidence of being up there with the best.

“I’m sure this will get people talking again, but I am going to try to be prepared and do the work and not worry about what the result is going to be”

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Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner can next week become the first U.S. singles skater to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, but not if she performs like she did last weekend at NHK Trophy in Japan.

“NHK was a disaster,” the three-time U.S. champion said Tuesday, “but that was kind of a one-time deal.”

Wagner backed into the Grand Prix Final as the sixth and final women’s qualifier by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy on Saturday, snapping her streak of 10 straight podium finishes in Grand Prix events. She had won Skate Canada four weeks earlier.

The Grand Prix Final is the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships and an event that Wagner calls a preview for Worlds (in Boston in late March/early April).

In Japan, Wagner had trouble cleanly landing and fully rotating jumps in both programs, and though she didn’t fall, her mental state was clearly shaken even before the free skate Saturday.

Japanese legend Mao Asada (one of three women to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, along with Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan) skated immediately before Wagner.

The home crowd was at its loudest after Asada rebounded from her own poor short to move into the lead (temporarily, Asada finished third).

“I didn’t know how Mao had skated,” said Wagner, who was in third after the short program. “I figured I needed to at least get on the podium [to definitely make the Grand Prix Final], and I knew that I could probably afford a fourth place [to still make the Final]. I think that is where I went wrong. I should have just put my head down, started fresh and gone into that long program not focusing on, OK, well, I can get as low as this and I’ll make it to the [Grand Prix] Final. I think that didn’t really get me into the fighting spirit that I’m so used to competing with. When I focus on the results and not how I’m going to get there, it usually doesn’t go so well for me. It was a rookie mistake.

“I think I was playing it safe and trying to avoid making a mistake, and of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Wagner placed fifth in the free skate and fourth overall. She actually could have finished sixth overall and still made the Barcelona Grand Prix Final.

So she goes into next weekend’s competition as an underdog to Russians Yevgenia Medvedeva and Yelena Radionova, the last two World Junior champions. Plus countrywoman Gracie Gold and Asada.

Wagner’s confidence that the NHK hiccup won’t repeat could be bolstered by last season, when she was also the last qualifier into the Grand Prix Final (before Gold withdrew), was in last place after the Final short program but starred in the free skate to grab bronze.

“I like it when I have something not go so well,” she said. “When things are too perfect for too long, in a way it kind of freaks me out a little bit.”

Wagner called the women’s field in Barcelona “wide open.” It may be, given six different women won the six qualifying events, the first time nobody doubled up since 2006.

However, Wagner tapped Asada when asked to name her biggest competition. Wagner, 24, and Asada, 25, are the only women’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers older than 20.

“When she’s on, [Asada] has the whole package,” Wagner said of the three-time World champion who took last season off from competition. “She knows how to put on a performance. The audience loves her. Technically, she’s very strong. I think that If I had to pinpoint someone, Mao Asada on one of her good days, is definitely going to be one of the top girls.”

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Travis Ganong on the rise, leads U.S. men into Beaver Creek

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Before checking into his Colorado hotel, Travis Ganong made a quick pit stop with his doctor to get the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb.

The digit remains extremely swollen even two weeks after a training crash. So much so that he can barely push out of the starting gate.

Not that anyone could tell in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend, when Ganong finished third in a downhill race and came within a wisp of another podium spot in the super-G.

Stitches removed and confidence soaring, Ganong’s eager to take on the demanding course in Beaver Creek over the weekend. This is a place where last February he earned a breakthrough silver medal in the downhill at World Championships (video here).

”It’s really nice to have these solid results so early in the season. It takes the edge off,” Ganong said. ”Before you have the first result, you’re always questioning yourself. Now I can relax and that’s when the really good skiing comes.”

The 27-year-old from Squaw Valley, California, has been a rising force on the U.S. speed team since a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.

In such a fast sport, though, he’s taken a gradual approach to his development – never racing outside his comfort zone until he was good and ready. That was all part of his calculated plan, which came to fruition last season as he won his first World Cup downhill race in Italy and earned his first medal at Worlds.

”I was always building, building, building, getting better and better incrementally,” Ganong said. ”Last year I was like, ‘OK, my time is now. I need to try something new.’

”Bam, I won a race. But then I would have a horrible race. … Now this year it’s all about bringing that consistency back to the top, top level.”

Growing up in Squaw Valley, Ganong could always be found somewhere on the mountain, whether it was skiing powder in the back-country with his father, cross-country skiing (he was good, too), snowboarding (yep, he tried that), going over moguls or training with his team.

”We had this two- or three-inch rule where if it snowed that much, we didn’t worry about setting up gates. We’d go freeskiing and chase each other around the mountain,” Ganong said. ”That’s the No. 1 reason why so many good skiers come out of there.”

Like longtime U.S. skiing great Daron Rahlves, one of Ganong’s idols as a kid. The two talk all the time about ways Ganong can uncover more speed.

”I really excel on the steeper, more gnarly courses,” Ganong said. ”I need to try to figure out a way to bring that same intensity to the easier hills that are a little flatter and not my strong suit. Daron and I, that’s all we talk about when we talk about ski racing.”

Ganong broke through last weekend in Lake Louise, which is more of a glider’s course.

Not bad considering his recent wipeout. He tumbled during an early morning training session in Vail when he didn’t pick up a roll in the terrain. He needed surgery to fix a torn tendon and ligaments. He also bruised his left knee.

So he didn’t have all that high of expectations going into Lake Louise.

”For me to have that kind of speed on that kind of hill, yeah, that was a little surprising,” Ganong said. ”I skied really relaxed and just kind of within myself.”

No one could catch Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, though, who came away with wins on both days as he returns to the World Cup circuit after tearing his Achilles tendon last season while juggling a soccer ball.

”Aksel just knows how to let the skis go,” Ganong said. ”But Beaver Creek? It’s a different hill.”

Ganong’s kind of hill.

”Beaver Creek is way more my style of skiing and my style of hill,” said Ganong, who was fifth last December in a World Cup downhill at Birds of Prey. ”I’m trying to not think too much about it, just keep working hard, and keep thinking I’m an underdog and have something to prove.

”Hopefully, that’s a good mentality to keep me fired up.”

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