The Sleeper Comes Alive – An interview with U.S. Biathlete Tim Burke

FasterSkierSeptember 4, 2007

You’ll usually get a smile and a good-natured laugh when you see Tim Burke. At least if he knows you. He’s reserved in unfamiliar crowds. Mindful of his manners. Respectful. He gives a good solid handshake. He’s the kind of guy girls want to bring home to their parents and say, “we’re getting married.”

Growing up the youngest of three children to the Vice President of Business and Finance at Paul Smith’s College near Saranac Lake, New York, one discerns through his respectful tone and mannerisms that discipline and honest work are held in high regard in the Burke family. So was sense of humor. As a young skier and biathlete, Tim was often overshadowed by teammates. Somewhat slow to develop physically, his technique—both skiing and shooting—is nearly flawless. It’s almost as though Tim is wired to detect lack of motor efficiency, and stomp it out. Ultimately, however, it is his patience, focus, and utter faith in himself and his ability, after several significant setbacks as a young athlete, that has put him square in the spotlight at the Biathlon World Cup debutante ball.

Take a kid who was a good ski racer—but never the star—give him all the mental and physical tools to be a world class competitor—but hide them in a lanky, physically-underdeveloped body—make his best-friend-and-teammate the guy he always has to try to beat but rarely does, give him those few setbacks to temper his ambition just a bit, then top it all off with 10 years of uninterrupted focus and determination, and you have Tim Burke today.

Standing with his Rossignol skis and Exel poles, a broad smile across his 25-year-old face, in front of 30,000 mostly-German fans in the Antholz biathlon stadium, you can feel the anticipation of the moment—that point at which a performance is going to be recognized. Then the whisky-voiced Italian announcer yells, “Siebte platz, Seventh place; Tim Burke-ah…USA!” With arms stretched high in the air, skis in one hand, poles in the other, he jogs to his spot on the World Championship podium to a roar of 30,000. Thirty-thousand. A roar. An American biathlete. It may be as close to rock star as an American biathlete has ever been.

Tim Burke burst onto the 2006-07 Biathlon World Cup, best known in the sport to that point as the guy who lost Jay Hakkinen’s lead in the Olympic Relay in Torino. It wasn’t like anyone expected this 23-year-old green-horn to tag first after two legs anyway, and it in fact wasn’t even remotely a shameful performance. It was just that for the first time in his life, Burke had to lead some of the best biathletes in the world — AT THE OLYMPICS. He’d never been there before, but it was a great experience, and one that prepared him for what would come this season. In fact, before this season, he’d never scored a world cup point; never been on the World Cup Overall list at all. In the first World Cup of the year, Burke made his first tick on the World Cup list with a 30th place finish. He only got better from there. By the fourth race of the season, he was 10th — one of three top-ten finishes this season including a 7th in World Championship 20km. By the end of the season, he’d gone from non-existent on the World Cup points list to 25th ranked in the world. That’s a massive step, and one you won’t accomplish in anonymity.

If you consider there are only two athletes Burke’s age or younger ranked higher than 25th in the world, you begin to get the picture of the excitement surrounding Burke in Europe. Germany’s brightest male hope for the future is where Burke is at today. The biathlon world has been waiting for an American to step up, day in, and day out, to compete with the best in the world and put U.S. Biathlon on the map—or perhaps biathlon on the U.S. map? Tim did that in 2006-07. And the sport’s fans responded. The result is semi-stardom for Burke in this fanatic-laden sport-of-the-moment on the European continent. One senses the Germans want a Tim Burke more than Americans.

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