Susan Dunklee | Reader Athlete May 2013

Susan Dunklee. Photo credit USBA.

Age: 27
Residence: Craftsbury
Family: Parents, Stan and Judi Dunklee; brothers, Eric and Sten
Occupation: Professional athlete
Primary sport: Biathlon

Vermont Sports caught up with Susan Dunklee after she returned from a winter competing with the US Biathlon team in Europe. The daughter of an Olympic athlete (her father competed in Nordic skiing in 1976 and 1980), Dunklee will be on the US Olympic team competing in Sochi in 2014.

VS: Tell us about your winter.
SD: I spent the winter on the World Cup circuit in Europe and Russia. We were gone from mid-November to mid-March with the exception of 10 days at home around Christmas. We competed in over 20 races in at least eight countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Norway, Russia, Slovenia, and Sweden.

VS: What was the high point of the trip?
SD: The highlight was placing seventh on the Olympic course in Sochi. I hit 19 out of 20 targets and prequalified for the Olympic team.

VS: Tell us about Sochi.
SD: Sochi is on the Black Sea. The city itself is pretty low and tropical but a lot of the ski venues are an hour’s drive uphill. The athlete’s village for biathlon is on the top of the mountain; you drive an hour uphill and then take a 10 minute gondola ride. It’s one of the highest courses we race on.

VS: I know you started out as a Nordic skier. When did you start doing biathlon?
SD: I’ve been a Nordic skier since I was 2 years old. I raced in high school and in college for Dartmouth but during the spring break of my senior year I got an e-mail from US Biathlon. They were recruiting Nordic skiers for their development team. They were willing to teach skiers to shoot in return for a commitment to the sport. I was 22 and I’d never handled a firearm but I learned to shoot through total immersion. The first time I fired a rifle was the first time I had smelled gunpowder; it wasn’t a smell I associated with skiing. Now it’s normal and familiar. I spent a few years in Lake Placid training full-time but I needed a break so I moved to Craftsbury. I still train with the national team so I commute from Craftsbury to Lake Placid.

VS: Do you still compete in Nordic races?
SD: At the end of the season I’ll do a few Nordic races; mostly skate skiing, but I try to do at least one classic race a year if only for fun.

VS: What do you like about biathlon?
SD: It’s much more interesting because it adds a mental component that is missing from Nordic skiing. There’s a mental challenge of learning how to shoot on top of the physical challenge. I play a lot of head games with myself trying to get the Zen-like detachment you need and trying to be process-oriented rather than goal-oriented. Shooting requires focus whereas skiing is just going as hard you can. It’s a good challenge and the training itself is more interesting. You’re doing intervals and then shooting so it becomes as addicting as a video game.

VS: Are Europeans more knowledgeable about biathlon than Americans?
SD: Vermonters understand what biathlon is, but a lot of Americans think it’s swimming and biking or biking and running. In Germany it’s the most popular winter sport with 5 million people watching on television during prime time. Their national biathletes are celebrities. Going through customs in Munich we kept getting asked if we knew their team members.

Photo credit USBA/NordicFocus.

VS: What was your most memorable race?
SD: Last year at the World Championships I placed fifth which was my top result to date. It kind of came out of nowhere. Before that my best finish had been 18th. Only one other American woman had been in the top five and that hadn’t happened for a decade. It was my rookie year on the World Cup and it was in the individual race which isn’t my strongest discipline. It’s the longest race and instead of penalizing missed shots with a penalty loop they add a minute to your time, so it’s designed for good shooters more than good skiers. I’ve been a better skier than shooter so I never considered this my strength and I totally surprised myself. I was on my fourth loop and I heard on the Jumbotron that the “surprise leader” was American Susan Dunklee and I had this shock of adrenaline. On top of everything I was bib one out of 120 starters which was a unique experience so I got to watch everyone else finish. A few people ended up passing me but I still finished 5th.

VS: Are you looking forward to the Olympics?
SD: I think the Olympics will be very different from the World Cup. There’s a lot of hype. It’s a very special thing and something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. I’m excited to see what it’s all about. My coach said it’s going to be impossible to treat it like any other race so it will be a challenge figuring out how to deal with it.

VS: What other sports do you do?
SD: We do a lot of cross-training including road biking, running, mountain biking, roller skiing, hiking, and occasionally canoeing or kayaking. I really like biking. I don’t race much but I do some smaller races. In college I used to unicycle to classes but I don’t ride the unicycle as much as I used to.

VS: Do you miss Vermont when you’re on the road?
SD: Big time. I miss Cabot cheese and maple syrup but I bring some with me and have some sent. I also miss the communities and people and the way everyone knows everyone.

VS: What are your plans for the future?
SD: I decide each spring if I want to keep going and as long as it’s fun I will. I studied ecology in college and could see myself doing environmental research. I’m really happy in Craftsbury and could see myself working at the outdoor center if they’ll have me. I’ve got two groups that are like families to me: the US Biathlon team and the Green Racing Project at Craftsbury. I feel very lucky to have both.

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with two spoiled orange cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”