American biathlete Susan Dunklee is about to head to Beijing for her third and final Olympic appearance. Regardless of her results, the EcoAthletes Champion from Vermont is committed to using her platform to lead climate action.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Dunklee about her journey to becoming an Olympic biathlete, her passion for the environment and her desire
GreenSportsBlog: Susan, we have a LOT to talk about. Your preparations for the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, your environmental and climate journeys. First, I’d love to know how you became that rarity on the American sports scene, a biathlete.
Susan Dunklee: Well, it’s not as much of a long shot as you might think.
I grew up in Northern Vermont — the Northeast Kingdom. My parents were cross-country skiers at the University of Vermont and my dad was on the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic teams. I was on my high school cross-country team, went to Dartmouth next door in New Hampshire, where I skied and ran cross-country.
An environmental and civil engineering major, I geared my summer job search after freshman year to the outdoors and the west. My biology professor told me about an opportunity to study pollination in the Rockies. That’s when I fell in love with biology and ecology!
GSB: What did you study out there?
Susan: Things like comparing pollination systems in dry and wetlands, tracking how flowers get pollinated, and how an invasive flower can impact other species. Another summer, I worked with algae. It was all fascinating to me. So, I switched my major from engineering to biology.
GSB: I can see why you did. How did you fare in cross-country skiing for the Big Green?
Susan: We won the NCAA Championship as a junior in 2007, our first team title in 25 years…
GSB: …That’s a big deal! Did you go pro after graduation?
Susan: Not right away. I had committed to a job at a bio lab in the Rocky Mountains for the summer after graduation. And then, out of the blue, I got an email from the U.S. Biathlon Association.
I didn’t know anything about it! In fact, I’d never shot a rifle before. It turns out that, because there are very few biathletes in the USA, the Biathlon Association recruited cross-country skiers and then would teach them to shoot.
GSB: So, what did you do?
Susan: I said no at first. Some of my friends and family hunted deer but I just wasn’t that keen to shoot a rifle. But then I talked to my parents about it and my dad said, “If you don’t try it, you’ll always wonder ‘what if’.” I knew he was right.
So, in May 2008, I found myself driving to Lake Placid for a crash course on how to shoot. The smell of gunpowder was incongruous back then; I don’t notice it now.
Eventually, I moved to Lake Placid. The Biathlon Association covered my food and lodging; it was during the financial crisis of 2009, so jobs were very hard to find in the ‘real world’. The time was right.
GSB: What was it like to learn a new discipline, a new sport as an adult and to train to compete at a world class level?
Susan: It was challenging for sure, especially with the dichotomy between the two disciplines. In cross-country skiing, the question is who can stay with it through the pain, to go, go, go. Then you have stop to shoot and change your whole mentality to shoot effectively, to become calm, cool, and collected in an instant. And then you have to do it all over again. I’ve come to love that duality.
In biathlon, the shooting aspect often makes the difference between being on the podium and not. When I first started, the mantra was, ‘don’t worry about the goal, just focus on the process of blocking out all distractions and being calm.’ Once I got to Year 2, the focus shifted more to the goal. Still, after all this time, the quality of my shooting goes up and down.
GSB: Watching biathlon, it always amazes me how one can ski as hard as possible and then be able to shoot accurately with heart rate pounding. Incredible. How fast did you advance on the world biathlon circuit?
Susan: I qualified for the International Biathlon Union (IBU) cup series, one step below the World Cup circuit in January 2009. Then I trained to try to make the U.S. Olympic team for Vancouver 2010 but barely missed the cut.
GSB: That must’ve been devastating. How did you react?
Susan: It was. I really took it to heart and that motivated me to train harder and smarter so, when Sochi 2014 came around, I wouldn’t risk being on the bubble.
To get over the disappointment, I realized I needed both a place to train and have some biathlon-life balance. So, instead of going back to Lake Placid and the Olympic Training Center, I ended up moving to Craftsbury, Vermont, only 20 miles from my hometown. That’s because a couple of friends from Dartmouth had launched the Green Racing Project as a place for elite cross-country skiers to develop their skills while living as sustainable a lifestyle as possible. This felt like the right lifestyle for me.
So, I applied there after Vancouver. And while they didn’t have a biathlon team, they did have a shooting range so I could practice.
GSB: How did the USA Biathlon coaching staff react to you not being in Lake Placid with the rest of the team?
Susan: Well, I had a phone conversation with the team’s performance director. The truth is, he didn’t like it, but we worked it out. They wrote my training plan, and Craftsbury was close enough to Lake Placid — about a three-hour drive — that I could go there when needed. I would train at home for two weeks and then be with the national team for two weeks.
GSB: How did the Craftsbury-Lake Placid shuttle work out?
Susan: The skiers at Craftsbury really pushed me and I developed as a shooter on my own. And it ended up working well. In 2011, I made my first world cup team; in 2012, I finished in the Top 5 at the World’s in February.
The truth is I really loved it, living on campus with the Green Racing Project team from 2010 to 2016. And while I don’t live on campus anymore, I bought a house in Craftsbury, made the town my home, so I love it there.
GSB: What were some of the ways you and fellow athletes made good on that environmental commitment?
Susan: The Green Racing Project is a group post-collegiate athletes who are committed to improving at their sports and to living a sustainable lifestyle. We grow the food supply served in the dining hall, from squash to kale, beets to zucchini. Engineers helped us to trap waste heat from snowmaking to heat the dorms. We also have rowers at Craftsbury; they’ve converted the launch boats to electric which was not easy.
Personally, I’ve pitched in on many projects, from helping to manage the gardens to sampling water quality as a citizen scientist of sorts to helping to coach kids on skiing and being sustainable.
GSB: Given your unique experience at Craftsbury, how has it been to advocate for sustainability as an athlete?
Susan: Well, Lew, there’s certainly been a lot to talk about in that the amount of time we’re skiing on manmade snow has increased dramatically during the last 10 years. Of course, it can be difficult to be an American biathlete because so much of our season is in Europe and so our carbon emissions, especially from flying, is super high and so we can be branded as hypocrites.
That said, we biathletes were in Austria in November 2015 during the COP that ended up ratifying what would become the Paris Climate Agreement. We unfurled a banner about Paris, and it got a lot of play on social media. This was the first time biathletes had organized around sustainability…really, around anything.
Now that we had learned to organize as a group of international athletes, we were able to advocate for ourselves better and pressure our international federation to clean up its act.
This was an important step, especially since that was around the time that there was a doping scandal in biathlon that then revealed massive corruption at the IBU. Our unified advocacy and voice helped shine a spotlight on the problem, which created pressure, which eventually led authorities to raid the IBU. That resulted in new leadership and a new constitution that gives the athletes much more of a voice.
GSB: WOW! What a big step that was. Congratulations! Back on the snow, did you end up making the Olympic team for Sochi in 2014?
Susan: Yes! There is a lot of pressure on U.S. biathletes because we’ve never medaled at an Olympics. And while I didn’t change that in Sochi, I finished 11th in my individual race, which was a positive result and was a half-centimeter away from a medal on my last shot. And we earned a 6th place finish in the relay, also a strong finish.
In 2018, I qualified for the Pyeonchang Olympics. Unfortunately, I caught a flu bug after arriving and so I had no chance to do well in my races.
GSB: That is yet another example of why being an Olympic athlete is such a mental grind. Yet you persisted through another four-year cycle, making it to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing…
Susan: Biathletes peak in our late 20s-early 30s so this is my last go at an Olympics. I didn’t feel great last season, it was very up and down. Sometimes I couldn’t go fast when I needed to summon the speed and I don’t recover as well as I used to. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for one more Olympic run.
Yet then I had one weekend of amazing racing, with two 8th place finishes. And Sean Doherty and I made it to the podium in mixed relay. Those results gave me a real boost. I talked to other athletes, including friends at Craftsbury. Turns out I wasn’t ready to give it up after all. And then I qualified for the Olympics and now I’m really looking forward to it.
GSB: Good luck! How do you feel about using your platform as a 3-time Olympic biathlete going forward?
Susan: No matter whether I help break the U.S. biathlon medal drought or not, I’m fired up to use my platform on the issues I care about, including of course climate. I was happy to become an EcoAthletes Champion earlier this year. And I’m also glad that the IBU has joined the climate fight. Last season, they launched the Biathlon Climate Challenge, in which fans voted to plant trees on behalf of their favorite racers — they could choose one of 10 and I was one of them! Altogether over 100,000 trees were pledged.
I also took over as Director of Running at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center this past fall and will focus on that job full-time once I retire from competing in the spring. I’ll be organizing running camps — including a sustainability-themed one! — and overseeing our Green Racing Project running team. So, I look forward to continuing my environmental and climate advocacy in my next chapter.