U.S. biathlete Tim Burke made sports history last month when he became the first American to take the lead in the Biathlon World Cup standings. Burke is due to compete in his second Olympic Winter Games this February in Vancouver, Canada. Burke's achievements this season have raised hopes that he could become the first athlete to win an Olympic biathlon medal for the United States.
Tim Burke is set to compete in his second Olympics and has emerged as a surprise contender for a biathlon medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. He made U.S. Biathlon Team history in pre-Olympic World Cup competition with two podium finishes in one week - including the first U.S. medal in a sprint race - before going on to take the lead in the overall standings only three weeks into the 2009-2010 season.
Burke says his recent success is part of a long-term process. "I definitely attribute it to nothing in particular that I've done this year, but I would say years of hard work," said Burke.
He says the training he has done this year, and winning World Cup medals ahead of the Vancouver Olympics gave him a big boost.
"I think it was a really important step for me," said Burke. "You know, I've been super close in the past, but to actually take that final step and get on the podium definitely goes a long way in helping my confidence."
The word "biathlon" is Greek, and means "two tests." The sport of biathlon falls under nordic skiing events, and combines the physically-demanding sport of cross-country skiing with the precision of rifle marksmanship. The athletes race against the clock while alternating between the two disciplines. Biathlon is very popular across Europe, especially in Germany, Russia and Norway, but it is not a well-known sport in the United States.
The difficult mastery of biathlon comes in learning to smoothly transition both mentally and physically from the grueling demands of cross-country skiing to the calm, steady precision needed to accurately fire a rifle from either a prone or standing position, then refocus on skiing. Depending on the event, there are several shooting range stops per race.
Tim Burke won silver and bronze medals at the biathlon World Cup's season opening event in Ostersund, Sweden to become the first American to achieve two podium finishes in the same week. He won silver in the men's 20-kilometer Individual race that matched a 17-year-old milestone set by Josh Thompson. Two days later, Burke won the bronze medal in the men's 10-kilometer sprint event, giving the United States its first biathlon sprint medal.
Two weeks after his double medal performance, Burke made U.S. biathlon history for a third time when he clinched the World Cup leader's coveted "yellow bib" at an event in Slovenia. Burke says U.S. head coach Per Nilsson has had a significant impact on his improved performance.
"Before Per started coaching me, I had never scored a World Cup point," he said. "I thought I was training really hard in 2006, then I met Per and I have a new meaning of training hard. I can't say enough about the work he's done for me."
Tim Burke grew up in Lake Placid, New York - the sight of the 1980 Winter Olympics - where he did a variety of winter sports. He started competing in biathlon when he was 16-years-old, but has always been a skier.
"Although I didn't start biathlon until a little bit later, I was competing in cross-country from a very young age; as soon as I could ski," said Burke.
Burke overcame serious health problems to qualify in four biathlon events for the 2006 Turin Olympics in Italy. In 2002, he was sidelined for weeks following major hip surgery. He missed the entire 2004 season recovering from the energy-zapping virus, mononucleosis. He also overcame what he describes as a bad chest cold at the start of the 2008-2009 season.
Burke says coming into this season healthy was his priority. "Right now I'm 100 percent healthy," he said. "I feel recovered and ready to go for the next months of racing."
U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) Executive Director Max Cobb declared Burke as the "best American biathlete ever," and said the 27-year-old's accomplishments place him among "biathlon royalty." Burke also earned praise of coach Nilsson and U.S. Biathlon's High Performance Director, Bernd Eisenbichler.
Cobb says a general overhaul of the U.S. biathlon program since the 2006 Olympics has led to the team's improved results.
"The key there really comes back to being able to hire some of the best coaches in the world," he said. "I think having our sponsor TD Bank get behind us on a long term basis, and the USOC quadrupled our funding. We reorganized our board and became a much more professional organization."
The hard work of the U.S. Biathlon Association, the coaches and biathletes over the last four years has led Olympic and biathlon experts to call the 2010 U.S. Biathlon Team the most improved in the world. The question remains, will it be enough for the first U.S. biathlon Olympic medal?
Tim Burke and the other American biathletes hope that will the case at Vancouver Olympics.