KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - The U.S. put down a ninth-place finish today in the first-ever Olympic biathlon mixed relay.
The team of Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey covered the course in 1:12:20.1, finishing 3:03.1 behind the gold-medal-winning time of 1:09:17 posted by team Norway. The Czech Republic took the silver medal in 1:09:49.6 while Italy won the bronze in 1:10.:15.2. A total of 16 teams competed in the event, which was voted into the Winter Olympics in 2011.
In the mixed relay, the two female team members each ski three laps of a 2-kilometer loop, and then the two male team members each ski three laps of a 2.5k loop. Each athlete also has two bouts of shooting, one prone and one standing. If an athlete misses a target, he or she can use up to three spare rounds, which must be loaded by hand after the five rounds have been shot. If there are still misses after eight rounds, the team member must then ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each missed target.
Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid skis through the shooting range during his first lap in the first-ever Olympic biathlon mixed relay at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (Enterprise photo - Chris Knight)
Dunklee, who's from Vermont and trains in Lake Placid, started first for the U.S. and hung with the lead pack for much of her leg. She had to reload just twice and left her team in fourth place, 6.9 seconds off the pace, when she handed off to Dreissigacker.
"I felt really good about the skiing," Dunklee said. "I lost a few paces on the range, but I was able to pick people off going up the hill and it felt great."
Dreissigacker, a Vermont native who lives in Keene in the offseason, had to reload three times and ski a penalty loop in her first shooting, then had to reload once in her second shooting. She finished her leg in 17:55, the next-to-last time among the second group of women. By the time she handed off to Burke, the U.S. had slipped to 10th place overall, more than 1:51 behind.
This was the first time Dreissigacker has competed in a mixed relay. She said she should have been able to hit all her targets with the extra rounds.
"I'm not exactly sure what happened," she said. "I started in such a good spot. It was such an amazing experience to tag off in fourth. I'm really grateful to my teammate Susan for putting me in that position."
Burke, a Paul Smiths native, had to reload three times in his first trip to the range in order to hit all five targets. In his second shooting, he had to reload once. Burke brought the U.S. up to ninth place, completing his leg in 19:02.9, the ninth-fastest time among the first group of men.
Burke said his skiing during the relay felt the best since the Olympics started.
"It was nice to finally feel actually like myself again skiing," he said. "My shooting: Standing was good; prone I had too many extra shots. I'd be interested to talk to the coaches to see where I was missing because everything felt fine."
The U.S. was 3:02.5 off the pace when Burke handed off to Lake Placid's Bailey, who skied the seventh-fastest time among the final group of men, 19:19.2. He shot clean in his first visit to the range, then had to reload three times in the final shooting bout.
"I think our whole team was ready to go," Bailey said. "Susan had a great lead-off leg. She was hanging with the best in the world and out-skiing everyone, so that was great to see. We had some real bright points today. We can definitely be there. We weren't today, but we can definitely be there."
For Burke and Bailey, this relay came one day after what they said was the most difficult race of their careers. The 15k mass start, which was originally scheduled for Sunday but was postponed until Tuesday due to fog, took place amid a storm of heavy, wet snow and sloppy conditions. Bailey said he was basically skiing in a foot deep of slush.
"Yesterday was physically and mentally tough, one of the toughest races I've ever done," Bailey said. "Today, from waking up looking outside, seeing that it was a nice day and knowing from the weather that it was going to be a much, much better track situation, that was motivating.
"Yesterday was, for sure, the hardest 15k race I've ever done," Bailey said. "Those conditions were pretty bad. It felt pretty nice tonight because conditions were so much better than yesterday."
While mixed relays have been a fixture on the World Cup circuit for years, there was only one held before the Olympics. At a November World Cup stop in Sweden, Saranac Lake's Annelies Cook joined Dunklee, Burke and Bailey and posted a 12th-place finish.
Both Burke and Bailey said they hope the mixed relay is here to stay in future Olympics.
"It's a great event, especially for some of the smaller nations," Burke said. "Teams that have a tough time fielding four competitive women or men in the normal relay can piece together two competitive women and two competitive men to have medal contenders."
"You saw that with Italy today," Bailey said. "It definitely gives the smaller biathlon nations a much higher probability of medaling. I think it's a great event, and I hope they continue to keep it in the Olympics."
There are two remaining biathlon events in these games: Friday's women's four-by-6k relay and Saturday's men's four-by-7.5k relay.