BY BRAD BOTKIN I APRIL 30, 2013
The most tired cliché in sports is that anything, on any given day, is possible. It’s not that it’s not true. We’ve all seen crazy things happen – bad teams beating good teams, miracle shots going in, whatever. But still, when you’re the underdog, when you’re the one who needs something very unlikely to happen, this romantic cliché can become pretty hard to believe.
And historically, the American winter biathlete hasn’t had much to believe in.
After all, the event that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting isn’t exactly our national pastime. In Europe? It’s serious business. A World Cup event can attract upwards of 30,000 fans. But here? In America? In our entire history, we’ve never had a single Olympic medal-winning biathlete.
So why would Tim Burke believe he can win a medal, even a gold medal, at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia?
Well, because he’s proved himself worthy of his own confidence.
After making a pair of podiums on the World Cup circuit and finishing 10th in the overall season standings, Burke took his performance, career and overall expectations to another level by winning a silver medal in the 20-kilometer individual race at the 2013 World Championships in the Czech Republic, joining Josh Thompson, who won silver in 1987, as just the second American to do so.
“It’s really a great feeling,” Burke said. “To see the work pay off.”
And with that, Burke heads into the Olympic year as a different man. A different athlete. It’s not that Burke hasn’t enjoyed success before. He’s been to the Olympics twice, though both trips yielded disappointing results, and in the 2010 season he even donned the symbolic yellow jersey reserved for the overall World Cup leader. But again, this is different. He’s now proved he can compete, and win, against the best biathletes the world has to offer. No clichés. No moral victories. Now he truly believes, and an athlete who believes is a dangerous animal.
“Plus,” he added, “I’m much more prepared now for everything that comes with these big events, and especially the Olympics.”
At the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Burke admits he was caught a bit off guard by all the attention, all the media, because remember, U.S. biathletes aren’t used to that stuff. Never mind the natural pressure and utmost urgency of the Olympics. It led to 45th, 46th, 47th and 18th place individual finishes in Vancouver, and now redemption is the only thing on Burke’s mind.
“This is everything right now,” he said. “As biathletes, we train as much as any athlete I can think of. We’re at this twice a day six days a week. There is almost no energy for anything else.”
And that’s the way it has to be – with all sports at this level, but especially the biathlon, which offers an almost laughably small margin for error. The biathlon, if you need a refresher, consists of five different races: the pursuit race (12.5 kilometers), the sprint race (10km), the individual race (20km), the mass start (a 15km race reserved for the top 30 in the world) and the relay.
But or course, it’s not just skiing. So here’s where it gets really interesting.
Along each course, there are varying numbers of shooting stations where you have to come to a stop, pull a .22 rifle from your back, and take, depending on the particular race, up to 20 shots at 50 meters from both the prone and standing positions. From the prone position, the target is the size of a silver dollar, from the standing position it’s a small saucer, and for each missed shot you have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop (except in the individual race, in which each missed shot simply tacks a minute onto your time, a debilitating penalty in an event where finishers are separated by seconds).
“It’s an event where you have to balance speed and precision almost flawlessly,” Burke said. “You have to be at the very top of your game in both disciplines. And over in Europe, the atmosphere can get pretty intense. You can have 30,000 people at a race and tens of millions of live viewers.
“It definitely takes all your focus,” Burke continued. “You go from racing around with your heart pumping like crazy, to having to stop and shoot. You have to gain control of your breathing and heart rate and focus in on your fine motor skills, and it can be a challenge with all the excitement. It’s really a fun atmosphere to compete in.”
From a pretty young age, Burke knew, on some level, that he wanted to do what he’s doing now. He grew up in a small town near Lake Placid, where so many winter Olympians live and train. He was exposed to sports so many others weren’t. He’d always been a skier and a hunter, and a competition designed around a combination of those skills seemed an intriguing and logical pursuit.
And now here he is, living and training in Lake Placid, his career peaking at the most optimal of times, Olympic time. He has the confidence of a man who has put in the work and seen the results, and for a country that has never produced an Olympic medal-winning biathlete, there is suddenly all kinds of hope.
“I feel like I’m right on track,” Burke says. “This has been the best year of my career.”
Hopefully next year will be even better.