4:25 PM CST, February 15, 2013
Tim Burke grew up in an Adirondack Mountain hamlet with no stores, no gas station, no neighbor within a half-mile of his house and just 671 people, period, according to the 2010 census of Paul Smiths, N.Y.
And then, as a 12-year-old, Burke took up a sport practiced seriously by maybe 70 people in the United States as compared to more than 10,000 in Russia alone.
And Thursday he beat all but one person in the world, which will make the small-town boy with a passion for fly fishing a big deal in the sport of biathlon for the second straight Winter Games.
This time, Burke figures he can deal with going into the Olympics as a medal contender, based on his silver medal in the 20-kilometer individual event at the World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“I didn’t handle it very well overall going into Vancouver,” Burke said via telephone Friday. “I was too concerned about what everyone else was saying and writing about me, too interested in the hype.”
Hype? For a biathlete? That seems a stretch looking at it from the outside, but it is a very different perspective if you are in the bubble of a sport where everyone spends about five months each year together, trekking across North America and Europe for competitions.
Since the 2010 Winter Games were in North America, there also was attention from media in his own country after Burke started the Olympic season with stunning success. He had become the first U.S. biathlete to wear the World Cup overall leader’s yellow racing bib as the circuit took its Christmas break.
“It’s a sport where as an American athlete you are not used to so much attention at home,” Burke said. “Going into Vancouver, there was a lot from U.S. media. That was very foreign to me.”
Two months later, Burke slogged to a 45th in his first Olympic race – by far his worst finish of the season to that point. He was 47th and 46 in the next two and managed an 18th in the last.
“That was really hard on me,” he said. “I really thought I had a good chance to win a medal.”
It has been a struggle for him to regain the form that produced three World Cup podiums in the last Olympic season. Burke needed surgery for compartment syndrome in both legs after the 2011 season. It wasn’t until this December that he won another World Cup medal.
His girlfriend of five years, German biathlete Andrea Henkel, has helped him understand how to deal with such disappointments, even though she has not had too many. Henkel, 35, has won four Olympic medals (two gold) and 16 World Championship medals (eight gold.)
Now Burke has become the second U.S. biathlete to win a world championship medal, following Josh Thompson in 1987. Thompson, suddenly projected as the first U.S. Olympic medalist in biathlon, also went on to a disappointing performance in a North American Winter Games the following year, finishing 27th and 25th in his races at Calgary.
"I've never been up on a pedestal like this before," Thompson said in Calgary, where he stunningly missed nine of 30 shots. "It's a long . . . a long fall."
That Burke, a two-time Olympian, has dealt with such lofty expectations once before should ease his quest to carry the mantle that weighed down Thompson. It may also help that the 2014 Winter Games are in far-off Sochi, Russia.
The best any individual U.S. biathlete has done in the Olympics is Jeremy Teela’s ninth in 2010.
“I don’t look at this (silver medal) as adding more pressure,” Burke said. “It’s the opposite for me. I know I can do it now. I have done it in the World Championships, so it is possible for me in the Olympics.”
Adding pressure is the worst thing that can happen to an athlete in a sport like biathlon.
As two-time U.S. Olympic biathlete Don Nielsen once put it: "Skiing and shooting is a marriage made in hell. It's a physical contradiction of impossible proportions. Biathlon is turning from a rabbit to a rock and then back again."
Burke, an 83 percent shooter for the season, hit 95 percent (19 of 20) in his silver-medal race.
“There is always something to improve on,” he said.
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