April 10th, 2014
By Stephanie Choate
The day before Vermont Olympic biathletes Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee flew to Washington, D.C. to meet President Barack Obama, they met with some other illustrious dignitaries: Williston Central School students.
The athletes—who had just returned home from an overseas racing circuit—shared their Sochi experiences, answered the curious students’ questions and gave students a taste of what it’s like to compete in a biathlon race.
Dunklee, decked out in a multi-colored sweatshirt she acquired from a Russian volunteer, stood on a desk and instructed students to run in place as fast as they could. Then, she told them to stop, take some deep breaths, and try to steady their rifles—or, in this case, their extended index fingers and thumbs—and hit the target.
Dunklee said biathlon’s “biggest trick” is to switch gears from all-out physical exertion to a calm, peaceful state of mind for shooting.
“You do get a lot more nervous at the Olympics than any other race,” Dunklee said.
“I knew right then everyone was watching me, and that experience was just so cool,” Dreissigacker said.
“It’s really hard when you’re nervous to hold your gun steady,” Dreissigacker added.
Dreissigacker said they try to practice the skiing and shooting so much they can almost do it in their sleep—the goal is to feel nothing while racing, to just perform.
“When you really want to hit it, you usually miss,” she said.
The students had been following Dunklee’s Olympic journey throughout the broadcast. Dunklee’s aunt, Stephanie Robitaille, is a paraeducator in their classroom.
“We talked to the kids about what biathlon was, because it’s not a familiar sport to most Americans,” said teacher Amy Durant. “We would watch her and it was really exciting for everyone here to know someone there and have that connection. (Dunklee) was messaging with the kids from over in Sochi. It was really kind of cool to follow her.”
Students responded to a Young Writers Project prompt, composing a pep talk to help Dunklee relax and focus for her races.
Dunklee’s and Dressigacker’s classroom visit brought the student’s biathlon experience full circle. The athletes told them about their Olympic experience, as well as how they got there.
“We started skiing when we were your age, maybe a little younger,” Dunklee told the classes. “Skiing is something we just always loved to do, and it was a great way to hang out with our friends.”
They showed the students photos from their time in Sochi, from airplane shots flying into the snowless seaside city to shots of their rooms to race day images and selfies. The photo that got the biggest reaction, though, causing the students to break out into excitable conversation, was a shot of a room filled with arcade games and Wii stations.
The athletes also shared an ebullient music video set to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and featuring dancing athletes of various nationalities.
Dunklee also showed the class a shot of a target she narrowly missed—a bullet mark pinged the edge of the hole. If she had made that shot, she said, she was on track to come in second and win the United States’ first biathlon medal. Instead, she finished 14th, but said that’s the nature of biathlon.
“Maybe one of you guys will become a biathlete and get that first medal,” she said. “That’s part of the job, weathering the ups and downs.”
Shortly after the Olympics, Dunklee took third place at the World Cup, the first American woman to make it onto a World Cup podium in 20 years, and just the third overall.
Students then peppered the athletes with questions, from “When did you know you were good at skiing?” to “How did it feel when you found out you got into the Olympics?” to “Do you have role models?”
Emma Strack, a budding biathlon racer herself, was impressed by the Olympians.
“I think it’s really inspirational to meet them,” she said after the presentation.
Strack said she even has her eye on becoming an Olympian someday.
“I’m going to train hard with my mom a lot,” she said. “I like how it feels after you hit a target. It’s really fun because I love to ski.”
Durant said all the students were excited by the visit.
“I think it was really neat for them to see an Olympian and realize that they live here in Vermont,” she said. “They told them they started at around their age and it just really was the love of the sport and they kept going. It makes it a little more real and maybe reachable for some of them.”