Egan and Dunklee retire: US Team looks forward

“The inevitability of change in sports is fundamental. We all live with it; no sports career goes on forever,” according to US Biathlon CEO Max Cobb. However, the US women’s program saw its two cornerstones, Clare Egan and Susan Dunklee retire this past season. Regrouping and maintaining the upswing and momentum of podiums and IBU WCH medals capped by an all-time US best fifth place in the Antholz Relay is the next challenge for the red, white and blue.

Across the board, these two women, both in their mid-thirties added more than just results to the US program. They sometimes unknowingly, cultivated respect and admiration for their character, in and out of the sport.

Egan’s emotional struggle, closure

Egan, while she personally struggled with leaving, spoke about her glowingly of her teammate. “I watched her go through the last year with such grace. Meanwhile, I was not doing it with grace, emotionally. That took me by surprise… It may be a contradiction but I am also grateful for the closure; I have these hopes and dreams I did not achieve, but I realize how really lucky I am to step away from the sport on my own terms with no major injuries or not making a team. I am glad I got the closure I had in Lake Placid (Women’s Sprint National Champion), but at the same time I did not meet all of my goals.”

Dunklee’s Peaceful Retirement

Dunklee admitted, “I was at peace. I have thought about retirement the last four springs; it was a year-by-year decision for me and I was very much on the fence. 2022 was the end date of end dates, so I had that done. My goal last spring was to find a job or a plan for after biathlon before winter hit. I did that and I think that allowed me a lot more peace.”

Auchentaller, “Respect them as people; truly great people”

US Women’s Coach Armin Auchentaller sees Dunklee and Egan as role models on and off the field of play; women who have set the bar for the US team in the coming years. “They have been great athletes and achieved a lot of things results-wise. I think what they excelled in is actually the people they are. They both in different ways have many qualities as human beings. I really respect them as people, truly great people…They always tried to be role models for their teammates and the next generation. Their success offers an opportunity for the next generation to reach what they have achieved, but also top them at some point. I think both of them would be really happy to see the next generation do that or even better.”

Impacting the sport

Dunklee’s own words regarding her long career offer insight into why she and Egan are so respected among coaches and peers. “I tried to find ways to leave an impact on the sport whether it was mentoring upcoming athletes or in the past year, getting involved in the IBU Athlete Ambassador Program. You spend all this time doing sport 24/7 and it feels a little bit selfish and you are not doing something valuable for the world. It is easy to forget how powerful a platform we have as athletes and how much we can make a difference to inspire people and inspire the group coming after us. That is what really kept me going the last few years.”

Egan added, thinking about the US program. “When you leave the team, you want to leave it in better condition than how you found it. Susan and I have had that conversation, thinking ‘Are we doing that or is it just dropping off? Is it like going to fizzle and die?’ I am really encouraged by the base that is coming up (after seeing over 180 competitors at the Championships in Lake Placid). I texted Susan (not there because of illness). I think you would really love to see this… It is not going to fizzle and die!’”

Dunklee and Egan: “Continue to give back…inspire young biathletes”

Cobb expounded on Dunklee and Egan’s influence. “Susan and Clare both played a fine role in our program. With both of them moving on at the same time, it is bittersweet. We certainly had nothing but admiration and respect for who they are as people and all their performances. I am happy that they are leaving after having such great performances. What was good from both of them is that they remain very interested in the sport. Clare is continuing as the chair of the IBU Athlete Committee and will stay connected with the sport. Susan is working at Craftsbury (Outdoor Center) and I think both of them are going to have the opportunity to continue to give back to the program and inspire young biathletes.”

Confident about the future

Moving forward at a high level is the dilemma for the US Women’s team, but everyone involved is optimistic from the retirees to Auchentaller. Egan. confident about the future, said, “In Deedra and Joanne, we have two really strong athletes who’ve had top tens at the Olympic and IBU WCH level and they both have room for improvement, so that is exciting…They can be the cornerstones of the team…I was so encouraged at Nationals to see all the juniors having fun, doing biathlon with their friends.”

The Women’s Coach feels the US team’s shared goals are the key to maintaining their momentum. “To take it to another level, we have to be a team: to continue to believe in the skills of our athletes and never lose that goal to be the best. Being a US biathlete is not so easy, there are not so many athletes who practise the sport. It takes a lot of commitment to be one of those who succeed in the future. I really respect the commitment of everyone in the US. I think it is stronger than in many other nations.”

Dunklee has seen improvements over her career that she feels will bolster the future of the US team. “I think we have made some major changes in terms of the quality of the program in the past 14 years. We’ve had much higher results with some ups and downs. Now we realize what the level can be and people want to go after that…We have some people in the mix coming up, Chloe Levins and Kelsey Dickinson for example. There are people there. It will take time to rebuild but hopefully not too long.”

“Focus on the next generation, with great opportunities”

Cobb, the driving force within US Biathlon for thirty years added, “It is really challenging to have that kind of turnover within the team. However, we were all impressed and pleased with the strides that Deedra Irwin made this last season. That gives us huge hopes that not only Deedra will continue to improve but also other up-and-coming athletes will meet the challenge and have the opportunity to compete in the World Cup and take some strides forward…The depth at the emerging and elite level is modest. It means that we do not have athletes that are ready to step in and achieve nearly the results that Susan and Clare had. On the other hand, we are going to focus on the next generation of athletes and give them great opportunities to compete in the World Cup and IBU World Championships. That is an inspiring opportunity and one that we are excited to deliver for the next generation.”

Finding balance after Olympics

Auchentaller, an experienced veteran who has worked in Italy and Switzerland as well as the USA understands what it takes after an Olympic season to move forward. “After an Olympic cycle it is very difficult to restructure things, to do the next step. It takes a little while to find the right path and direction. For the athletes, the Olympic year is very heavy with a lot of commitments outside of training and expectations. Trying to find the best balance in the first year after the Olympics is very important. On the other side, no one really stops continuing to fight; that is very important to know that. The key is to find the right amount of ticking up without losing anything.”

Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Danny Wild

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