Beyond the podium

Bailey and Burke’s parents reflect on their sons’ biathlon careers

Tim Burke, a Paul Smiths native who lives in Lake Placid, races his leg of the Winter Olympics mixed biathlon relay race Tuesday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Provided photo — Ross Burton/US Biathlon)

SARANAC LAKE — If winning Olympic medals defined an athlete’s career, the hard work and sacrifices turned in over the past two-plus decades by Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke all added up to nothing.

But if promoting peace and humanity, displaying unwavering determination and dedication, reaching the podium in races outside of the Olympics and being a role model told the tale, the careers of both Bailey and Burke have been as good as gold.

On Friday, the two friends who grew up together in the Adirondacks fell short of accomplishing a long-time goal of winning an Olympic medal after wrapping up racing in their fourth and final trip to the Winter Games as biathletes representing the United States.

Bailey, who was born in North Carolina and grew up in Lake Placid, and Burke, a native of Paul Smiths, have been the face of the U.S. biathlon program since the early 2000s and are planning to retire from competition.

Although the two 36-year-olds ended their run of four straight appearances in the Olympics without a coveted medal, they did finish on an up note in Friday’s last biathlon race in Pyeongchang, tying an American best result of sixth place in the 4×7.5-kilometer relay with teammates Sean Doherty and Leif Nordgren.

Lowell Bailey, of Lake Placid, competes in the Winter Olympics mixed biathlon relay race Tuesday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Provided photo — Ross Burton/US Biathlon)

Although their sport knows minimal popularity in the U.S., Bailey and Burke reached rock-star status in Europe where biathlon is king among winter sports in terms of spectators. A year ago, Bailey cemented his name in biathlon history with a World Championship gold medal, while Burke’s accomplishments included a 2013 World Championship silver medal and five trips to the World Cup podium.

Three of the biathletes’ biggest fans — Burke’s parents Jack and Maryjean and Bailey’s dad George — awoke bright and early Friday morning to watch their sons’ final Olympic race on television, which aired live at 6:15 a.m. Eastern time. All three reflected on their sons’ careers later in the day.

Speaking from his winter home in Oriental, North Carolina, George Bailey said Lowell is a true example of what the Olympics are all about.

“Lowell didn’t get the medal he was hoping for, but I do think the thing that he takes away from this is that he has been part of one of the greatest organizations for world peace in our time,” George Bailey said. “The Olympics is the one place where the world acts as one world. He’s an ambassador for world peace and that’s what I’m most proud of him about.

“At the Olympics, everyone is speaking different languages and cheering one another on. He’s been a part of that, and seeing that has been very exciting to me. He’s risen as high as he can.”

Above all, George said that Lowell’s pure enjoyment of skiing propelled his son to an incredible run as an elite biathlete.

“I once asked him after he’d been to an Olympics, after he had been doing it for a while, ‘What do you like the most about this? The skiing, the travel, meeting people?’ He just loves to ski. When he was a kid racing as a 6-year-old, he’d finish in the middle of the pack, but he could not wait for the next race.

“The very first thing that comes to mind is I don’t know any one who loves skiing as much as Lowell, and he loves to ski race. And it’s more fun to compete once you reach a certain level, and Lowell has been there for a long time.”

Lowell Bailey was unable to qualify for the U.S. team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and then successfully set his sights for the next time, a first trip to the Winter Games held in 2006 in Torino, Italy.

“I’ve always just stayed in the moment watching Lowell,” said George, a retired teacher and longtime tennis coach from the Lake Placid Central School District. “I don’t get too disappointed or elated. When he went to qualify for Salt Lake, he didn’t make it, but I thought he’s going to make it someday. It was always there.

“What really happened was he was doing something he loved and stayed with for so long, he became so disciplined. One moment I knew he had what it takes was one day I called him and said ‘I’m grilling some hamburgers. Do you want to stop by? He said ‘Sorry dad. I have to train.’ He didn’t say ‘Yeah, I can train tomorrow.’ He never said that. If he did, I could have been knocked over by a feather. To be so unwavering to follow that level of commitment, that’s what got him to four Olympics.”

Tim Burke’s parents were at their beautiful home in the forest in Paul Smiths watching their son compete in what he hinted will be his final Olympic event. Afterward, Maryjean recalled Tim’s beginnings in biathlon.

“When they were 13, 14 years old when they started, I said ‘Biathlon. What’s biathlon?’ I had never seen a biathlon race,” she said. “I think they’ve brought a lot. The community knows what biathlon is now. I think it’s grown in the United States. I think they’ve done a lot for the sport.”

“A lot of that is due to their success,” Jack added. “There are a lot of obscure sports that this country doesn’t care about until an American has some level of success. It takes people kind of pushing the needle up a bit. There are some athletes who are content with ‘Getting the jersey,’ making the Olympic team. They might not say that publicly, but that’s all they wanted to accomplish. But with Billy (Demong), Lowell or Tim — uh-uh — they’ve always wanted to be at the top. As a result of that, the whole profile of the sport has grown.”

Burke, who at one time became the only American to wear the yellow bib as the points leader on the World Cup tour, might never have reached that level if he had taken the advice of a Nashville surgeon early in his career with the national team. Dealing with a hip issue, Burke traveled to see a top surgeon in Tennessee who worked with elite athletes, including NFL players, and was told he should give up biathlon and try something different.

“He’s been through a lot, especially physically,” Maryjean said. “He was told as a 20, 21-year-old when he was getting his hip operated on — I was right there in the room — his surgeon looked him in the eye and told him ‘Right now, I’m telling you, you should pick another career.’ The look on Tim’s face got like stone. Afterwards we were going home and discussing the operation and I said ‘Tim, you heard him.’ Tim said ‘Mom, I am not going to give this up.'”

“It’s been inspiring for us watching him go after this prize,” Jack said.

Not only have Bailey and Burke pursued excellence on the course and at the range, they haven’t been afraid to speak up when they see things that need to addressed. Earlier this week, along with teammates, they spoke to the Washington Post regarding gun control just days after the fatal school shooting in Florida. In the story, Bailey firmly asserted his position supporting an assault weapons ban, and Burke, a hunter himself, said he’d gladly lock up his firearms, which is always the case with biathletes, in order to save a life.

The two have also been outspoken backers of harsh punishment when it comes to doping in sports.

“They’ve been very involved in this, the two of them,” Jack Burke said “They’ve been very involved in this athlete movement to make a statement, to say ‘screw this, this is wrong.'”

All three parents stressed their great pride in their sons, and figure in the future that both biathletes will be able to look back on their careers in the same light, even though they didn’t reach the Olympic podium.

“I think as time goes by and Tim looks back and takes his body of work in total, I think he’ll be satisfied,” Jack said.

“I think they have to be so proud of what they have accomplished,” Maryjean added. “They’ve accomplished so much in how far they’ve taken this sport. That’s a lot to be proud of.”

“When it all adds up, the great and not so great moments, Lowell has a lot to look back on including a World Championship. He’s not a could have, should have guy,” George said. “Every race when you do well but missed that last shot that could have cost a medal, you’re right there with 10 other guys. How much skill, how much luck makes up for the difference, no one has that answer. Lowell, Tim, they learned a long time ago, the answer is ‘That’s biathlon.’ If any regrets do come, I’m sure his mind will drift back to that world championship. That’s as good as it gets.”

Although their Olympics are over, Bailey and Burke do have some unfinished business remaining this winter. They’ll travel to Finland and Sweden for two more World Cup stops and then wrap up their skiing and shooting at the U.S. national championships in Solider Hollow, Utah.