KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - Saranac Lake's Annelies Cook and the rest of the U.S. women's biathlon team closed out the Sochi Winter Olympics on a high note.
Cook, Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker and Sara Studebaker took seventh place in the 4-by-6-kilometer relay, the best U.S. women's team relay result ever at the Olympic games. It's also the team's best result in a relay this season.
The four women completed the course at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center in 1:12:14.2, 2:11.2 behind the gold-medal time of the team from the Ukraine. It was the first gold medal for Ukraine, which continues to be marred by deadly riots, since Oksana Bayul's gold in figure skating in 1994.
Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake climbs up a hill at the Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Center during Friday's women's 4-by-6-kilometer relay.
(Enterprise photo - Chris Knight)
The Russian Federation took the silver medal in a time of 1:10:28.9, while Norway won the bronze in 1:10:40.1.
In the women's relay, each team member skis three 2-kilometer laps, interspersed with two bouts of shooting: one prone, one standing. If an athlete misses a target, she can use up to three spare rounds, which must be loaded by hand after the five rounds have been shot. If there are still misses after eight rounds, the competitor has to ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each missed target.
The U.S. team had to reload 13 times in Friday night's relay but had no penalty laps. Vermont's Susan Dunklee skied first and had three reloads, finishing her lap 12.9 seconds behind the leader. She had the fastest leg of the U.S. team at 17:02.
Hannah Dreissigacker, also of Vermont, took over and had to reload six times between the two bouts of shooting in order to hit all her targets. She skied her leg in 18:08. When she tagged off to Sara Studebaker of Boise, Idaho, the U.S. was 58.2 seconds off the pace.
Studebaker shot clean both times and skied her leg in 17:55. She left a 1:12 deficit to Cook, who skied the anchor leg. Cook had to reload twice during each of her visits to the range. She finished her leg in 19:07.
"It's our best result ever," Cook said. "I had felt like sixth was so close. It was right there, but I had too many extra rounds. I just couldn't get it. I was really happy to race again."
This was Cook's first race in 10 days. She sat out the 15-kilometer individual competition on Feb. 14 because she was sick with a respiratory illness. She wasn't picked to race in Wednesday's first-ever Olympic mixed relay, which she admitted was a big disappointment.
"At first I felt totally crushed, but Hannah had such a great individual, and for them to pick me after being sick would have been a really risky move," she said. "Once I got over the initial disappointment, it was like, 'They totally made the right decision.'"
Cook said she's finally healthy. She said she approached tonight's race feeling very relaxed and confident. When she hit the course, she said she took it step by step.
"My first lap felt really relaxed," Cook said. "I skied with a Czech girl, and I was like, 'This is awesome. I'm not working hard at all.' My second lap felt pretty good. My third lap, trying to catch Italy, it was like my body filled with lactic acid like crazy. It was all I could do to stand up. I felt a lot better than I have but probably a bit rusty."
Dunklee said she was happy with her skiing but made too many mistakes at the shooting range.
"I felt good skiing," Dreissigacker said. "The shooting was not awesome, but at least I didn't have a penalty."
Studebaker said the snow conditions were soft and challenging, but she said she was pleased to shoot clean.
"It was a long time coming," she said. "The pursuit and the individual were definitely rough for me. Today was a really great day to make it happen. I was really psyched."
Studebaker said this is her second and "probably" her last Olympics. She said she was excited to close it out with such a positive result.
"This is a great way to end it," she said. "Our team's been so close this year. To finish up this Olympic experience together with a really solid result is fantastic."
"The team is at the best place we've ever been," said Dunklee. "It's really cool to be a part of that."