Susan Dunklee

Giving up a spot in the Games


What would it feel like to have a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team and then, selflessly, give it up? It would be easy.

“Love,” Tracy Barnes said of giving up her spot on the U.S. biathlon team to her twin sister, Lanny, “is selfless dedication.

“Love means giving up your dream so someone else can realize theirs.”

Tracy (left) and Lanny Barnes at a biathlon event in Vancouver // photo courtesy US Biathlon/Nordic Focus

Understand the numbers. The U.S. Census population estimate for the start of 2014: just over 317 million. The U.S. women’s biathlon team that goes to Sochi in just a few weeks: five. Essentially, by the time it got down to Sunday’s final qualifying race, there was one spot up for grabs. One in 317 million. For comparison, your chance of winning the lottery on a single ticket is one in 175 million.

Really, Tracy Barnes said. It was easy.

“If I were to sum up the decision,” she reiterated, “it’s not hard to make a decision like that when you care about someone. Anyone who cares about someone can relate to making a sacrifice for someone they care for.”

Tracy and Lanny Barnes are 31 years old. This is, probably, their last best chance at the Olympic Games.

Biathlon is the ski-and-shoot combination. The United States has never won an Olympic medal in the sport. Many observers believe 2014 could well be the breakthrough year.

The twins are from Durango, Colorado. Their dad, Thad, is a contractor; mom, Deborah, was a long-time schoolteacher; older sister, Christie, who lives now in Burlington, Vermont, is on her way to becoming an ENT surgeon and, Tracy said, is “a big inspiration to us.”

Tracy is the younger of the twins by five minutes. Even so, she said, “Most people think I am the older one because I take on that role. I like to take care of her,” adding a moment later, “I think I have always taken on that motherly role. She would roll her eyes. I have always looked out for her in whatever way I can, the way an older sister or sibling would do. Just take on that role. I do what I can for her.”

The sisters didn’t get on skis, or even think about combining shooting and skiing, until they met a US Biathlon coach at a local competition.

When they were 18, they made their first junior world championship team. Two years later, Lanny medaled at the 2003 junior worlds.

Both made the 2006 Torino Games. At the time, they were 23. Lanny finished 64th in the 15-kilometer event, Tracy 57th. Tracy also came home 71st in the 7.5km sprint; the twins were part of the 15th-place U.S. finish in the 4x6km relay.

Tracy said: “We were so young and inexperienced. You always want to follow up with another Olympics. Your first one — just so you can have that first one under your belt so you’re not so green. There’s more to the Olympics than just going and competing. I think that’s a big part of it for me.”

In 2010 in Vancouver, Tracy did not qualify. Only Lanny. Her best individual finish: 23rd in the 15k.

As the Olympic qualifying season unfolded, two of the five spots on the Sochi 2014 team were locked up early, dictated by results on tour. They went to Susan Dunklee of Barton, Vermont, and Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake, New York.

Then Sara Studebaker of Boise, Idaho — like Lanny, a 2010 Olympian — and Hannah Dreissigacker of Morrrisville, Vermont, earned their spots.

Dreissigacker clinched her spot with 18-for-20 shooting, and a 10th-place finish, at an IBU Cup event Saturday in Ridnaun, Italy. She and Dunklee grew up skiing together in northern Vermont.

Thus it came down to Sunday’s racing, at that same IBU Cup in Italy.

Sunday’s race: a 7.5k sprint.

Tracy Barnes finished 10th. She shot clean — no penalties.

That clinched it for the committee, which by rule had a discretionary spot — Tracy Barnes was not just the U.S. athlete with the next-best record over the qualifying period, she seemed to be peaking, and just in time for the Games.

But — wait.

Before that race, Tracy had already made her decision.

During the final four team-selection races, Lanny had been sick, unable to compete in all but one.

Tracy knew the rules, her status and her sister’s, too — if she turned down the spot, Tracy knew Lanny had the next-best record over the entire qualifying period and thus would be the athlete the committee was all but sure to turn to.

“For me, this decision was pretty easy,” she said again.

“It’s a pretty heavy situation, I guess,” she said with a laugh. “I have been through a fair number of Olympic Trials in my career. I know they’re pretty brutal emotionally. I know there can be a chance where bad luck can on the side of an athlete. Just having watched Lanny through this week and how she even tried to race one race sick, that never works, even — especially — at the level we are trying to race at.

“I have trained with her almost every day now, almost half our life, 15 years now. I have seen her dedication. So I could definitely see she deserves to be on the team.”

After Sunday’s racing was over, the two sisters went for a walk -- actually more of a hike up into the mountains.

“I told her,” Tracy said, “I had something to tell her.”

She added, “Of course she protested.”

There were tears. A lot. On both sides.

“I told her,” Tracy said, “I had been inspired by her performances this year and I really think she is on a great path and I really want to see how far she can go.”

From high in the Italian mountains, Tracy then called Max Cobb, the president and chief executive of US Biathlon, at his home in Vermont. He ended up having to call her back from a landline. The cell reception was scratchy. Even so, he understood.

“It’s a remarkable thing, even for a sister -- even for a twin sister -- to be selfless enough to understand that another athlete would have a better opportunity to perform at the Games,” he said, “and give that away.”

He called it “one of the most inspiring gesture of sportsmanship I have ever seen. It is exactly what you hope Olympic sport inspires,” adding, “To see Tracy do this for Lanny speaks volumes about their character and what it means to represent the United States at the Olympics.”

“I can’t even begin to describe," Lanny Barnes said, "what it means to me that Tracy made such a huge sacrifice for me.

“It’s hard to put into words what she did and what it means to me.”

She added a moment later, “Often times during the hype of the Games we forget what the Olympics are really about. They aren’t about the medals and the fame and all of that. The Olympics are about inspiration, teamwork, excellence and representation. I can think of no better example of the true Olympic spirit than what Tracy did this past weekend. It took a lot of courage and sacrifice to make such a powerful decision.”

She also said, “It’s not every day that you are given a second chance like this. I thought my chance at the Olympics was over. But now I’ve got a second chance and will do everything I can to bring honor to her,” meaning Tracy, “ and our country in Russia.”

XC skier Kikkan Randall on a roll

Three years ago, Kikkan Randall won her first World Cup race. This was when many around the world could hardly imagine an American winning a World Cup event in cross-country skiing, and for good reason. An American hadn't done much of note since Bill Koch, and that went way back to the early 1980s. So Randall winning -- that was a really, really big deal. Randall won again this past weekend.

The reality is that Randall, 28, of Anchorage, Alaska, is now good enough that she's capable of winning anytime she lines it up. She's consistent enough that her weekend victory shot her to the top of the World Cup sprints points standings.

Perhaps the most profound sign of such progress is the way she talks about it all. She said Monday on the telephone, matter-of-factly, "For me, it has been a steady progression."



Cross-country skiing is, like biathlon and Nordic combined, one of those endeavors that takes time, funding and faith to get results.

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, it all came together for the Nordic combined program. Fourteen years after the decision to go all-in, the U.S. won four Olympic medals.

The biathlon program didn't win any medals in Vancouver -- but all signs are pointing in the right direction. For a time last season, Tim Burke wore the yellow jersey emblematic of the tour's points leader. This year, Susan Dunklee has steadily been moving along in the standings.

Similarly, the U.S. cross-country ski team didn't win any Vancouver medals.

But -- Vancouver was hardly a failure for the program or for Kikkan Randall.

The 2010 Games were her third.

In Salt Lake City, her first Games, she finished 44th in the sprint. In Torino, ninth. In Vancouver, eighth.

Then again, by way of explanation, the 2010 Olympic sprint used the classical style of cross-country skiing; Randall's best results have come using the freestyle, or skate, form.

So to finish eighth -- that was, as Kikkan put it, "an incredible breakthrough."

During the 2009 season, she took silver in the freestyle sprint race at the world championships.

Before this past weekend she already had been on the podium twice this season. Then, back in Liberec, the Czech Republic, on the same course where she won the 2009 world championships silver, she held off Hanna Falk of Sweden and Celine Brun-Lie of Norway for the win.

During that 2009 race, it snowed. This past weekend, it rained and they had to salt the course.

In 2009, Randall's strategy was to lead from the front. This time around, she said she sat back just a little bit.

This is how an experienced pro does it -- in different conditions and with different strategies.

The difference, of course, is that now we are talking about an American.

It takes a long time to get there. But Americans can get there, too.

"This is something I had in the back of my mind 10 years ago when I seriously committed to being a full-time ski racer," she said. "I just had this feeling I could do it. It was just an inkling. To now be 10 years forward and be in this position, it's incredible. It literally is the realization of a dream."