PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Over the past decade of Susan Dunklee’s life, most days have involved a gun. A gun helped lift a national-level cross-country skier into a world-class biathlete who has competed in two Olympic Games. A gun traveled over Dunklee’s shoulder for what must amount to thousands of chilly miles by now. But after a gunman killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas last year, Dunklee felt the urge to put hers down forever.
“I was so distraught and felt so sick to my stomach thinking about that stuff,” said Dunklee, who will be the best medal hope among American female biathletes in PyeongChang.
“. . . Every time I hear of some mass shooting like that, it’s really painful. That’s so different than my experience with rifles and firearms. It’s tough. I struggle with that.”
Dunklee specializes in transforming the seemingly contradictory into productive balance. She is an Olympian who refuses to base her life around the title, though she must devote so much of her life to training for it. She once lived at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., where she was surrounded by elite athletes. She ditched it for life at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center near where she grew up in Vermont, where none of her neighbors have anything to do with biathlon.
She is a Dartmouth graduate whose initial post-grad plans included heading west, working at a coffee shop, and maybe racing cross-country now and then. She is an elite athlete who doesn’t obsess about nutrition, though her sport requires as much cardiovascular fitness as any at these Games, and she more than keeps up. She began a beekeeping business at Craftsbury and tends the hives when she’s not racing, drawn to the peace she finds in the stress of the process.
“It feels a lot like shooting in a highly pressurized situation with the bees,” Dunklee said. “. . . The consequences of losing focus on the process of the task at hand are pretty high. The consequences of messing up are very drastic. You just have to be very Zen-like and very calm and collected.”
In biathlon, a competition that includes five events built around skiing fast and shooting accurately, a missed target incurs a distance or time penalty. Medals, therefore, can be determined by millimeters. Events are wide open. Each shot carries consequences, particularly at the Olympic level.
Biathlon became an Olympic event in 1960, and the United States has never won a medal. No American woman had won an individual medal in a world championship event until Dunklee won silver last year.
But in a sport with such thin margins, expectations and predictions are little more than guesswork. Over the first few days of news conferences here, Americans have talked about the desire to end their country’s medal droughts, medal-related goals they have chased for years, a singular focus.
Dunklee, who turns 32 on Tuesday, spent much of her time with reporters talking about bees and a balanced lifestyle.
“I think the Olympics are a very cool thing to chase after, very motivating and inspiring, but you have to have more in your life than just that,” Dunklee said. “I don’t know who said it once, but it’s always stuck with me when I heard this quote: ‘If you’re not happy without a gold medal, you’ll never be happy with it. If you’re not happy without the Olympics behind your name, you’ll never be happy with it.’ ”
Dunklee’s father was an Olympic cross-country skier. She wasn’t brought up hunting. She considered biathlon only after U.S. Biathlon sent her a recruiting email during the spring of her senior year at Dartmouth, offering full room and board to a student graduating with plenty of loans around the time of the stock market crash of the late 2000s. A decade later, her life is somehow tied to a weapon she has watched wreak sickening violence. But over that decade with a rifle on her shoulder, she also has found her peace.
“I’ve realized it requires considerable emotional control to be able to shoot precision shots well. You have to be able to keep your focus very closely,” Dunklee said. “You have to stay focused, and you have to be very disciplined — extremely emotionally disciplined. When I’m shooting, it feels like this Zen-like state. It’s almost like a meditation in a way. That’s so opposite and different from what I ever would have expected.”
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