PRESQUE ISLE — World Cup biathlon returned to Aroostook County for the first time in five years Thursday, and Susan Dunklee celebrated in historic style by matching the best World Cup finish by a female U.S. biathlete.

Dunklee won a silver medal in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint Thursday afternoon, marking an American breakthrough in a sport dominated by Europeans that combines cross-country skiing and marksmanship. And on home soil, no less.

“This is a dream-come-true day for me,” said Dunklee, a 29-year-old Vermont native whose father was a two-time U.S. Olympic cross-country skier. “To have my best result on the home course when we only have a World Cup here every five years is just phenomenal. My family is here. So many friends and supporters are here. So many supporters of U.S. Biathlon are here. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”

Until Thursday, the best showing by an American woman at biathlon’s highest level was Anna Sonnerup’s second-place finish in a World Cup sprint in Germany in 1990.

Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, the World Cup points leader, won Thursday’s race in 20 minutes, 2.2 seconds. Dunklee was a little less than 18 seconds behind, edging bronze medalist Krystyna Guzik of Poland by 1.3 seconds. Dunklee, who hit all 10 targets on the course, earned 10,000 euros for her finish.

“It was a terrific opening day,” said Max Cobb, president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon, headquartered at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. “We had a podium (finish) and we had six athletes in the top 30. I honestly can’t remember a better day for our team.”

The performance by the U.S. athletes at the Nordic Heritage Center delighted a flag-waving, cowbell-clanging crowd of 3,100 – most of them schoolchildren – under overcast skies and occasional snowflakes.

MILLIONS OF EUROPEANS ARE WATCHING

Presque Isle marks the eighth of nine events on this winter’s World Cup biathlon tour, and sets the stage for the World Championships in Oslo, Norway, in March. A European prime-time television audience of 65 million to 70 million viewers – more than for any of the U.S. presidential debates – is expected to watch the events unfold from Aroostook County through Sunday.

Biathletes ski with .22-caliber rifles strapped to their backs. Before shooting at targets – five from a prone position and five while standing during sprint races – biathletes try collect themselves and slow their heart rates. Prone targets are the size of an Oreo, standing targets the size of a compact disc. Biathletes who miss targets must ski a 150-meter penalty loop, lengthening the distance they must race.

Fans bundled in winter gear cheered on biathletes from 25 nations Thursday, but reserved their loudest encouragement to those wearing the purple and orange racing suits of the United States.

“This is really unique,” said Cape Elizabeth native Clare Egan, who placed 32nd Thursday and qualified for Friday’s 10K pursuit. “First of all, there were people cheering ‘USA!’, which never happens. But there were a number of people cheering my name, ‘Clare!’ And that, especially, never, ever … I mean, this is the only time that’s ever happened in a biathlon race, except for my own mom or dad. So that was really cool.”

Egan finished 1:38.8 behind Soukalova – with one miss in standing position. Egan cleaned five targets in prone position and hit her first two in standing before missing the middle target. She took a deep breath, resettled her rifle, and took careful aim before knocking down the final two targets.

“That was absolutely the right move,” she said, admitting to a case of the shakes. “I was there on the (range) for a really long time, so I’m sure I lost probably 10 seconds, but a penalty loop is at least 25.”

Finishing 5 seconds ahead of Egan in 27th place was teammate Hannah Dreissigacker of Morrisville, Vermont, giving the U.S. three women for Friday’s pursuit.

financial prizes THROUGH 10TH PLACE

Earlier Thursday, under mostly blue skies, Johannes Thingnes Boe of Norway won the men’s 10K sprint with a perfect 10-for-10 shooting performance and needed only 24:38.8 seconds to cover the course.

Both Soukalova and Boe earned 12,500 euros for their victories. Third place was worth 7,000. Prize money is paid through 1,000 euros for 10th place.

Three American men broke into the top 20. Sean Doherty of Center Conway, New Hampshire, was 13th with one miss in standing, and Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, New York, was 15th, also with one standing miss, only 6 seconds behind Doherty. Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, New York, missed one shot in prone and one in standing, and placed 20th. All three qualified for Friday’s 12.5K pursuit.

But it was Dunklee who captured the spotlight on Day 1. The only other time she had skied in Presque Isle was a small race in 2009 with only one or two other competitors, she said. The course, however, with its steep inclines and twisting downhills, reminded her of those she used to run and ski in Vermont.

“It’s a roller coaster,” she said. “This is what I grew up racing on. Sure, that was running and not skiing, but it still has the same flow and feel.”

The World Cup is scheduled to continue through the weekend, with a men’s relay Saturday and a women’s relay Sunday after Friday’s pursuit races.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH


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