This hasn’t been Tim Burke’s best world cup season competing in biathlon. He was sick in December, and he’s failed to crack the top 10 in any individual event.
Yet as the U.S. team prepares for the IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen Austria, beginning Wednesday, the three-time Olympian from New York is as excited as he’s ever been about his team’s prospects. He’s competed in 10 world championships, the first in 2004, and he believes no previous U.S. group has been better.
Only one American biathlete has won a medal at a world championships since 1987 — Burke with a silver medal in the 20-kilometer in 2013 — but he wouldn’t be surprised if that list gets longer in Austria.
“This team has multiple people who have a realistic chance at a podium finish, which is something pretty unique in U.S. biathlon history,” said Burke from northern Italy, where the team was training for the world championships.
Lowell Bailey ranks 17th on the world cup circuit and, like Burke, is a three-time Olympian going to his 10th world championships. He has a world cup bronze medal in the 10K sprint from the 2014 season and has 10 top-10s, plus he was Team USA’s highest finisher at the 2014 Olympics with an eighth-place finish. Sean Doherty, a 2014 Olympian, is just 21 and had the most successful U.S. junior career with four gold, four silver and two bronze medals from junior worlds events from 2013 to 2016. Leif Nordgren, also from the 2014 Olympic team, has been a big part of the men’s 4x7.5K team that finished sixth in its most recent world cup event.
Burke, meanwhile, finished last season ranked 15th in the world cup and has three seconds and three thirds in his world cup career.
“This is the best team we’ve ever had going into a world championships,” said Burke, 35. “We have three different athletes … who have world cup podium finishes. We have the best junior of all time now racing on the senior level who will be at the world championships and we have a men’s relay team that has been in the top five in the world last year.”
On the women’s side is Susan Dunklee, a 2014 Olympian who is 17th in this year’s rankings. She’s going to her fourth world championships. She’s had a podium finish this season (third in the 7.5K sprint) and won a silver medal in the 7.5K sprint last season in Maine among her three world cup medals.
She’ll be joined by Clare Egan, who’s been to two world championships, as well as Joanne Reid and Maddie Phaneuf.
Dunklee, 30, from Vermont, shares Burke’s optimism.
“Lowell has been having a fantastic season; Tim is a very talented athlete, and he’s won a world championship medal in the past,” she said. “The relay teams, the men have a really strong four guys who could be in the fight for a medal. Our mixed relay is always a contender. We’ve never quite pulled it together to get that higher result yet, but anything’s possible. Our women’s relay team, we’re hoping to get a top 10. We’re all trying to peak for these races.”
Dunklee got off to a strong start this season, with third- and fourth-place finishes, but wasn’t able to carry that momentum into January.“The last few weeks have been a little disappointing,” she said. “They haven’t been bad, but they haven’t been all that good. It was exciting to have those races in December, though. It built my confidence and got me all fired up.”
In fact, Dunklee has shown steady progress in recent years. She ranked 40th in the world cup in the 2012-13 season, then moved up to 23rd, 17th and 14th last year. At 17th now, she’s in position with some strong races to tie or beat last year’s standing.
One of the reasons for her improvement has been her shooting. She’s focused the past couple of years on getting faster without losing accuracy. Previously, that had been one of her weaknesses. That was the key to her strong December performances, she said.
She did it by studying film of the fastest and best shooters on the world cup circuit and adopting their rhythm. In the offseason, she’s shot at paper (rather than metal) targets, so she wouldn’t get the instant noise feedback of hitting or missing. That allowed her to concentrate on the process, not the results.
Her shooting efficiency was the catalyst for her strong December results.
“My skiing wasn’t quite at peak form yet, but because I was shooting so well I was giving myself the opportunity to have such good races,” she said.
Burke says he’s been up and down this season. But heading into the world championships he’s been able to put in some good training and gain confidence. He says he’s always skied well at Hochfilzen, and he feels healthier.
Plus, the team has brought in Matt Emmons, a three-time Olympic shooting medalist, to help.
“It’s definitely a big confidence boost,” Burke said. “When you have one of the best shooters in the world telling you you’re doing the right things, that goes a long way.”
Both Dunklee and Burke say the Americans could have a big world championships if all the moving pieces fall together. But in biathlon, there are a lot of moving pieces, including weather.
“In the men’s field, there will probably be 110 starters, and out of those 110, there’s at least 40 guys who have a realistic chance at reaching the podium, so it makes for a very interesting set of races,” said Burke.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.