LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Biathlon is the only winter sport in which the United States has never won an Olympic medal. Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke aim to change this.
Bailey won Team USA’s first biathlon world championship title in February and became the first U.S. athlete to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Burke, who struggled with mononucleosis last winter, is a 2013 world championship silver medalist. Chances are good that he will qualify for the 2018 Games; last weekend, he finished third right behind Bailey in the mass start race at the 2017 USBA Rollerski Biathlon Championships in Jericho, Vermont — one of a series of Olympic team qualifiers.
Both men have had a good summer of training, most of it in their hometown of Lake Placid. In a sport that combines shooting and cross-country skiing, they will have to have a perfect race to win a medal in PyeongChang. Fortunately, they will have six opportunities, including a new mixed relay. (For a full explanation of biathlon races, continue reading at the end of this article.)
Both men have competed in three Olympic Games already. Here’s a look at why their medal chances are better than ever in 2018.
1) Experience Is Key
Like a fine Bordeaux wine, biathletes tend to improve with age. Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the Michael Phelps of the Olympic Winter Games with 13 medals (the most of any winter Olympic athlete), is 43 years old and won the bulk of those medals after he turned 28. And he’s still competing.
Bailey, now 36, and Burke, 35, have been in the sport for more than 20 years — and both have competed in cross-country skiing together since they were in elementary school. To date, Burke has raced in 321 IBU World Cup races; Bailey in 316. And they have both finished on the world cup podium at least twice.
Both men have been able to compete into their 30s thanks to improved team support over the last decade. Prior to the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006, most U.S. biathletes retired from international competition in their early 20s.
“You need a lot of opportunities,” said Burke. “Oftentimes, especially in the beginning, you fail [in high-level competition]. But the more often you’re in those situations, the more likely you are to succeed. In order to do that, you really need to stick with it and be in it for the long haul.”
“I think Tim and I are probably the first generation of U.S. biathletes who were able to enjoy enough support to call biathlon a career,” added Bailey.
They have also learned from mistakes competing in three previous Olympic Games — mistakes such as focusing too much on the importance of the Olympic races or becoming caught up in others’ expectations.
“Been there, seen it… three times,” Bailey said with a laugh. His eighth-place finish in the 20-kilometer individual race in Sochi in 2014 is the best American result at an Olympic Games to date. Had he not missed one shot, he would have won a bronze medal.
Now they realize that Olympic races are no different than what they see on the world cup tour — the same distances, the same formats, the same targets.
“[Our outlook] is different now,” said Burke. “The Olympics is just another competition.”
2) Good Shooting
Coming into last season, Bailey listed his goals on his website. One of them was to reach a 90 percent or better seasonal shooting average (up from 86 percent). The previous season, his prone shooting average was 94 percent. But standing, he hit only 79 percent of the targets.
With hard work, he bumped up his prone shooting average up one point to 95 percent last season. And his standing average jumped to 85 percent, giving him a 90 percent overall average. In other words, of the 470 targets he shot during the 2016/2017 season, he only missed 44. This ranks him second in the world behind France’s Martin Fourcade, who won more Olympic medals in Sochi than any other male biathlete.
But Bailey is not content. He would like to improve his standing percentage another one or two points. This would boost his shooting average to 91 percent — higher than even Fourcade’s.
3) Good Health
Throughout last season, Burke felt fatigued. He had come into the season feeling strong, but then he struggled in every race. He finally pulled the plug on competition in February and headed home. The diagnosis? Mono — a reactivation of the virus that sidelined him 13 years ago.
“It’s a very unfortunate part of our sport,” Burke said. “A cold for a normal person, you still go to work, you can still get things done. In other sports even, it’s still possible to do well. For us, it’s a killer.”
Why? Because if you lose 1 percent of your ski speed, you have no chance at all, explained Bailey.
After a couple months of rest, Burke is back to normal now and hopes to stay healthy throughout the season.
“If I’m healthy, I feel like I’ll be there and be competitive with the best guys,” said Burke, who has finished on the world cup podium five times and lead the world cup tour for a few weeks during the 2009/2010 season. He has been ranked as high as third overall in both the individual and mass start events.
Bailey, whose daughter Ophelia is now 14 months old, enjoyed good health last season — part of the reason he was able to compete so well at the 2017 IBU World Championships, where he racked up three top six place finishes in addition to his win in the 20km individual race. He finished the season ranked eighth overall and third in the individual race.
Both men are proactive about their health and hygiene and hope that, as Bailey describes it, the “lottery that every biathlete plays” with viruses spins in their favor leading into PyeongChang.
4) Improved Training Facility
Since 2008, Bailey and Burke have trained at a shooting range and on a paved roller skiing path that loops between the birches and pines (and a few deer) in the shadow of Lake Placid’s giant ski jumps. In the summer of 2013, the facility was expanded to include about 3 kilometers of paved trails and a more gradual race-like transition to the shooting range.
It’s changed the way Bailey and Burke have trained. They used to drive 75 miles — including a ferry ride across Lake Champlain (or a 100-mile drive if they avoided the ferry) — to the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site for biathletes in Jericho, Vermont. A few times, they rode their bikes.
Now, they can pound out intense intervals in the morning, with their heart rates mimicking race situations both on the course and in the range. Then they return home to rest before an afternoon workout back at the loop or the Olympic Training Center.
“Everyone we’re competing against trains at a venue [like Lake Placid’s],” said Burke. “Before, we didn’t, and it was a big disadvantage.”
On these paved trails, Bailey and Tim Burke have likely skied close to 15,000 miles, or five times the distance from New York to Los Angeles. And this does not count the roller skiing mileage that they have accrued elsewhere. Bailey remembers one workout where he skied the 1-kilometer loop, with a brutal climb from the parking lot to the shooting range, 60 times.
“I don’t want to know [how many kilometers I’ve skied there],” joked Burke.
5) And Perhaps Most Important, Anyone Can Win
While biathlon is an unforgiving sport — with one missed shot making the difference between a podium finish and eighth place — it means that anyone can win. It’s a volatile format that makes it difficult to predict the winner. And the sport is more competitive than ever.
“If you look at the statistics of the world cup podium contenders, something like 30 different countries are on the podium,” said Bailey. “Compared to other sports, it’s kind of extraordinary.”
The holy grail of having a perfect race keeps many competitors in the sport.
“You can go out and know that you have a chance at the podium every single day,” said Bailey.
“You can have one day where you’ll be 75th place and the next day come back and podium,” added Burke. “That’s the beautiful thing about biathlon.”
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Here’s an explanation of biathlon’s six races, with distances listed for men. At each trip to the range, they shoot at five targets.
Individual race: 20-kilometer race with an interval start where athletes come into the shooting range four times (prone, standing, prone, standing, totaling 20 targets). For each miss, one minute is added to their overall time.
Sprint: 10-km race where they come into the range twice (once standing, once prone). For each miss, they must ski a 150-meter penalty loop, which takes elite biathletes 20-30 seconds.
Pursuit: 12.5-km race where their starts are separated by their time differences in the sprint. They shoot four times, two prone, two standing, in that order. They ski a penalty loop for each miss.
Mass start: 15-km race where they start together. There are four shooting bouts, two prone, two standing, with the penalty loop employed for each miss.
Relay: Four men each ski 7.5 km with two shooting rounds (one prone, one standing). They have eight bullets to hit five targets per round and must ski the penalty loop for each missed target.
Mixed relay: New for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, two men and two women will compete in a mixed relay. Legs 1 and 2 are skied by the women, legs 3 and 4 by the men. The women's legs are 6 km and the men ski 7.5km.