FORT KENT, Maine — New faces stood atop the podium at the end of the first day of competition on Thursday in the U.S. National Biathlon Championship.
More than 70 biathletes from around the United States and Canada, including past Olympians and current world champions, are in Fort Kent through Sunday at the 10th Mountain Lodge for both the national championship and the 10th race in the North American Cup series. The North American World Cup wraps up next week in Val Cartier, Quebec.
Newly crowned 2009 U.S. National Sprint Champions Susan Dunklee and Bill Bowler are relative rookies in the sport, both having picked up rifles for the first time at the start of the 2008-2009 season.
“I just started biathlon this year,” Dunklee said after posting the fastest time in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint. “I’m a converted ski racer [and] today my shooting just came together and I surprised myself.”
Local athletes also performed well with a solid one-two-three finish for the Maine Winter Sports Center in the youth women’s division for the 6-kilometer sprint.
Fort Fairfield’s Hillary McNamee took first place with a time of 22:32.3 that included three missed shots in prone and one miss standing.
This year’s youth-junior women’s world champion silver medalist Grace Boutot of Fort Kent came in second at 22:47.5 after shooting clean in prone and missing three standing.
In third was Fort Kent’s Andrea Mayo in 22:53.9 with only two missed targets standing.
“It’s great to be back here skiing again and always a good learning experience,” Boutot said. “Now I have to mentally focus and dig deep down and say, ‘Yes, I can do better.’”
With a course ski time of 24:55.3, Dunklee, who skis for the United States Biathlon Association’s development team, edged out twin sister skiing powerhouses and 2006 winter Olympians Lanny Barnes and Tracy Barnes-Colliander, who finished second and third respectively with times of 25:17.1 and 25:44.5.
“I’ve raced against the Barnes sisters a few times, and they tend to be the better skiers,” Dunklee said.
The twins are former members of the Maine Winter Sports Center team and trained for several years out of the 10th Mountain Lodge as USBA teammates.
Barnes outshot Dunklee on Thursday, shooting clean — hitting all five targets — from the standing position and missing one in the prone position.
Dunklee and Barnes-Colliander each missed one in both positions.
For each missed target the biathletes must complete one circuit of a 150-meter penalty loop before heading back out on the course.
“It was the last shot in each stage I missed,” Dunklee said. “It’s always a mental game at that point when you’ve hit four and want to hit that fifth and shoot clean.”
Fellow USBA development team member Bowler finished the men’s 10-kilometer sprint with a time of 28:11.1 to win the gold medal for the U.S. national championship, finishing just over a second behind Nathan Smith of Biathlon Alberta who placed first in this 10th race in the North American Cup series.
“It felt pretty good out there,” Bowler said after his race. “It was some of my best shooting for the year [and] it’s great when it all comes together.”
Taking the men’s silver medal was Jesse Downs in a time of 28:14.1 with the bronze for U.S. biathlon sprint going to Zach Hall with a time of 28:31.2.
Bowler hit three of the five targets from the prone position and four out of five standing.
Like Dunklee, Bowler comes from a ski race background, having competed for four years at Northern Michigan University.
This week competitors get their first look at two new hills incorporated into the course over the last year.
“The course is brutal,” Bowler said. “It demands a high level of physical fitness, and you have to work the downhills so there is no chance to rest.”
That’s something Boutot learned early on.
“I came off the last hill pretty fast and snowplowed to slow down and went straight off the trail toward a tree,” she said. “I also fell on the first loop [and] you can see the hole. This is the first race this year I have fallen this much.”
Another local skier also felt he could have done better.
Russell Currier of Stockholm came in seventh with a time of 28:43.9 and five misses on the day.
“It was bad today, really bad,” Currier said. “I couldn’t put it together on the range and have been shooting poorly all year, so it looks like today was just another day.”
Wrapping up his first year in the men’s division, Fort Kent’s Newt Rogers placed 12th overall in the men’s sprint in 29:33.0, shooting clean standing while missing two targets from the prone position.
“The bullets in my gun jammed every single shot,” he said. “Sometimes you get so anxious, and I have to remember to pull the bolt all the way back.”
Friday is an official training day. All athletes are looking ahead to Saturday’s pursuit race that kicks off at 10 a.m. at the 10th Mountain Lodge.
The event wraps up Sunday with the pursuit race mass start at 10 a.m.
“I’m going to do some warm-ups, take some naps, eat some good food and be here,” McNamee said. “Saturday and Sunday, here I come.”