Tim Burke hopes for redemption in fourth Olympic Games
SARANAC LAKE — Olympian Tim Burke knows what it’s like to be at the top of his sport.
He’s tasted success competing alongside the world’s best as a veteran of the United States biathlon team, with some of those achievements being a silver medal at the 2013 world championships and five trips to the podium in World Cup races. He also became the first biathlete in U.S. history to wear the yellow bib as the World Cup points leader during a portion of the 2009-10 season.
But the 35-year-old from Paul Smiths has also experienced a fair share of frustration, injuries, bouts of illness and even bad luck.
In fact, Burke’s races at the previous two Olympics, and especially at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, may have provided him with some of the biggest disappointments of his 14-year run on the national team. Heading into his fourth, and perhaps final Winter Olympics next month in South Korea, Burke is hoping to make those frustrations a thing of the past.
If his results this winter are any indication of how things might play out in Pyeongchang, Burke may indeed finally come through in what could wind up being the biggest races of his life.
After getting off to a slow start this season, where the best he mustered up was a 32nd-place finish, Burke has been steady while climbing his way up the ladder in terms of results, with the exception of a few rocky races.
In his past 11 World Cup starts, Burke has skied and shot his way in the top 25 eight times, including a fourth-place finish on Jan. 5 in Oberhof, Germany in a 10k sprint race. That was Burke’s best result in four years, and was a performance that can only add confidence to the already experienced, inspired biathlete who learned to ski in the Adirondacks.
In his last two races prior to the upcoming Olympics, Burke was consistent on the way to 21st- and 22nd-place finishes while attaining a final ranking of 29th in World Cup points.
Burke said he’s geared his schedule and training this season toward being in top form for his fourth shot at Olympic glory.
“I’ve tailored my training to be at my best for the Olympics, and that fourth place showed I can be competing on my best days,” Burke said just before wrapping up the World Cup season earlier this month in Antholz, Italy. “I feel like I’m mentally at the top of my game, and physically, for the most part, I’ve been at the top for years. Now, just having a little bit of luck and staying healthy could go a long way.”
Burke’s first venture into Olympic competition was in Torino, Italy at the 2006 Winter Games, and he was just happy to be there representing the U.S. and taking in all the excitement.
“I wasn’t expecting much,” he said.
Four years later, however, Burke knew he was a medal contender entering the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Earning two silver medals and a bronze on the World Cup tour, he was having the best season ever for a U.S. biathlete, but the results didn’t come. In four individual Olympics races, his top finish competing at Whistler’s biathlon course was 18th place in the 15-kilometer mass start. His other three individual results were well behind that with finishes of 45th, 46th and 47th.
“Heading into Vancouver, I was highly ranked and felt like all the pieces were in place,” Burke said. “That turned out to be a frustrating Olympics.”
Burke planned to use his struggles in Vancouver as motivation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the run up to those Winter Games, like the sport of biathlon, was peppered with ups and downs. Obviously the biggest highlight in the lead up to competing in Russia was his silver medal in the individual competition at the 2013 world championships in the Czech Republic.
But just like Vancouver, Burke, as well as his longtime teammate and friend Lowell Bailey, was unable to come through in Sochi, although he did turn in a slew of higher finishes. At the Sochi Olympics, Burke’s performances were better and more consistent, but his showings of 19th, 21st, 22nd and 43rd were still far away from the podium.
Whatever happens next month, spending more than half of his life involved with the sport of biathlon has shaped Burke, and he couldn’t be happier about it. He’s traveled the world, experienced different cultures, made loads of friends and even met his wife, Andrea Henkel, a retired German biathlete and four-time Olympic medalist whom he married in 2014.
Burke said biathlon has provided him with an exciting, amazing life where the positives far outweigh the negatives.
“Competing in front of 25,000 fans has kept me coming back for a long time,” Burke said, adding that in Europe, it’s not uncommon to have 10 million people watching World Cup competitions on television. “It’s such a dramatic sport. It’s never over until the end.
“I’ve been in biathlon for 16, 17 years and skiing cross country my whole life,” Burke added. “One of the things that has kept me involved in the sport for so long is there are always new things to experience, new things to learn. I really enjoy the training. I feel like I have the best job in the world — skiing biking, and being in the mountains and outdoors every day.”
Although Burke has been excruciatingly close to that top spot on the podium but has never finished first against the world’s best, he’s been able to live a life with no regrets. He said the sport has given him just about everything with one big exception — an Olympic performance he can be satisfied with.
“I have no solid plans for the future and this could potentially be my last Olympics,” he said. “It’s been a fun season so far. I love to compete, but honestly, doing well is fun for sure. In biathlon, there are so many variables, so many things you can’t control.
“I just want to have a race I’m proud of at the Olympics. I’ve had those in World Cup. If I have a good race and finish sixth, I’ll be really happy with that. Hopefully, the fourth time’s the charm.”