There’s a book for sale on Team USA’s website called Unique and Unknown: The Story of Biathlon in the United States. If the performance so far by the U.S. Biathlon Team in Beijing is any indication, that title may soon become obsolete. Within the Winter Olympics’ first three days, American biathletes turned in a pair of head-turning performances at China’s Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre. And seven seems to be their lucky number.
First, team members Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan, Sean Doherty and first-time Olympian Paul Schommer finished seventh in the mixed relay on Saturday, battling frigid temps and wild winds to match the top U.S result—at Sochi in 2014—in an Olympic relay. In terms of time, however, the relay team was closer to first place than it was in Sochi, so it’s being counted it as the best finish ever, says team spokeswoman Courtney Harkins. The Americans came in 2 minutes,12.7 seconds off the gold medal pace of the Norwegians. To note—and in a welcome measure of providing equal distances for women and men—this was the first time that the mixed relay was raced over four 6km legs (previously it had been two 6km legs for the women and two 7.5km legs for the men.
Then on Monday, 29-year-old Deedra Irwin, who said afterward that she was in her “zone,” skied an incredible race in the women’s individual 15km; her seventh-place result was the best-ever for a U.S. biathlete, topping Lowell Bailey’s eighth place in the men’s 20km at Sochi. Irwin, who also represents the Vermont Army National Guard, finished 1 minute, 01.4 seconds behind winner Denise Herrmann of Germany. In addition to skiing fast, Irwin excelled at hitting her targets on a day when the wind at Zhangjiakou stayed uncharacteristically calm.
“Crossing the finish line, knowing I shot 19 for 20, that made me cry before I even looked at the thing and saw what place I was in,” said an emotional Irwin after the race. “Just thinking about my family and everybody out there who’s watching me and supporting me, this is all for them. I’m just so happy that I was able to perform. I’ll be crying all week—just catch me anywhere, I’ll be crying.”
Her single miss came at the last shooting range, but she was able to maintain her concentration by focusing on one shot at a time; she said afterward that she’s been using that tactic and working hard since last year to increase her shooting percentage in general.
Irwin’s other top results have come at the recent 2022 IBU World Cup in Antholz, where she notched fifth place in the women’s relay along with teammates Dunklee, Egan and Joanne Reid; eighth in the sprint at a 2019–20 IBU Cup race in Martell, Italy; and sixth in the short individual at another IBU Cup race that same season in Brezno-Osrblie, Slovakia.
A couple of days before the race, Irwin, who’s from Pulaski, Wisconsin, anticipated that the cold temperatures would prove one of the biggest challenges, noting that recent races in Europe have been unseasonably warm. “We’re a little out of practice for blustery, cold, frigid conditions,” she said. She was in practice, however, for everything else that the roller coaster–like course might have thrown at her. “I was trying to focus on just working on everything I’ve worked on this week; really skiing the course well and staying calm on the range and being ready for anything, with wind or whatever,” Irwin said.
Attributing her success to a solid game plan that she put together with the help of coaches and teammates, Irwin also didn’t let nerves rattle her, an especially tricky feat during biathlon’s shooting bouts, which require precision amid an all-out aerobic effort. “I just really tried not to put a lot of pressure on myself, and I think that helped me stay calm out there,” she said.
Expect to see more of Irwin, who said that biathlon makes her “incredibly happy.” Having achieved a huge goal just by getting to the Olympics, she described anything else as “icing on the cake” after the race. Irwin added, laughing, that, “As long as I’m enjoying it, I’m still going to be out there going through the sufferfest that is these races. I’m still young in the sport, I’m still learning. One of these days I’ll learn how to clean a race. I was close today, but I’ll take it.” In the meantime, enjoy that icing, Deedra.