Two U.S. women have big day on snow

Randall, Dunklee ski a swath through sports where U.S. success rare

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Susan Dunklee in the World Championships

U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee on the way to a landmark fifth-place finish at the World Championships. (Christophe Pallot / Getty Images / July 19, 2012)

It was quite a Wednesday for two U.S. women in winter sports where their country has had little or no historic success.

Veteran cross-country skier Kikkan Randall added another line to her litany of impressive career firsts when she became the first U.S. woman to win a World Cup season title.

Rookie elite level biathlete Susan Dunklee scored the highest finish ever by a U.S. woman at the World Biathlon Championships, missing a medal by just seven seconds after 9.3 miles of shooting and skiing that lasted nearly 44 minutes.

On a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon in the sport's mecca, Ruhpolding, Germany, Dunklee took fifth Wednesday in the classic biathlon event, the individual race.

Only one U.S. biathlete - Josh Thompson, silver in 1987 - ever has won an individual medal at worlds, which began in 1958 for men and 1984 for women.  A U.S. women's relay took bronze in 1984.

"Susan has had this potential this year but to put all the pieces together at the World Championships is unbelievably awesome," said Jonne Kahkonen, in his second year as U.S. women's head coach.

Dunklee made her debut on the World Cup circuit and in the world championships this season.  Her best World Cup finish had been a 17th in a sprint event.

"Halfway through my fourth (penultimate) lap, I heard an announcer saying that I was in the lead," Dunklee said.  "That was a little terrifying.

"I was very glad I still had a couple hills to go before the range so I could compose myself before my final shooting stage."

Going into the final lap, she was third, four seconds ahead of the eventual bronze medalist, Helena Ekholm of Sweden.  Dunklee finished 3.5 seconds from fourth and 1:18.2 behind the runaway winner, Tora Berger of Norway.

"I did my best on the last lap, but my legs felt pretty tired today," she said.

Dunklee, 26, of Barton, Vt., turned to biathlon in 2008, after finishing her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, where she was an NCAA All-American in cross country skiing and an all-Ivy selection in cross-country running.

"Several weeks ago, (U.S. teammate) Russell Currier did one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen in sports, seemingly coming out of nowhere to place 6th in a World Cup," Dunklee said.  "That's when I realized what was possible."

Randall's achievement was testament to a whole season of excellence rather than what she did Wednesday, finishing 11th in the sprint event at Drammen, Norway, where she skied part of the semifinal race on just one ski after pulling a binding loose.

The 29-year-old Alaskan made the podium in four of nine World Cup races this season, winning two and getting a second and a third.

She had been on the podium just seven times in 41 previous World Cup sprint races.

And this also is a season where Randall did more of the non-sprint World Cup races than ever before.   She had the first top-10 finishes of her career -- a 6th and two 8ths - in non-sprint events and is fourth in the overall standings.

Wednesday's race was, ironically, her lowest sprint result of the season.

"It's definitely more grueling chasing all the races and racing all the heats in addition to all the distance races, but it was worth it," Randall said.

Randall, a three-time Olympian,  already was the first U.S. woman to win a World Cup race and a world championship medal (silver in 2009).

She finished ninth in the sprint at the 2006 Olympics and 8th in 2010.  The next Olympics are in Russia, where Randall had both the first World Cup podium and first win of her career.

In a sport where U.S. athletes generally start light years behind their European counterparts, whose baby presents often include cross-country skis, Randall has reached their level -- and often left them behind. 

 

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