After the U.S. men’s performance in the season-opening World Cup relay in Sweden, which had Andy Newell, Kris Freeman, and Noah Hoffman hanging with the leaders through nearly three full legs, the question hung in the air: Who would be the skier to fill the void in the fourth spot?
The answer seemed to lie back at home, in the form of a rising star like Tad Elliott, who could be ready in time for the Sochi Olympics in 2014. But in fact, the Americans already have a proven veteran ready to race in the relay for them—one who’s already been on a World Cup podium: biathlete Tim Burke.
“I think I could help, and I’d love to do it,” he said in an interview. “It’s something I’d definitely be very interested in.”
A number of biathletes have successfully made the cross-over to cross-country in the past few years, especially Norwegians. Lars Berger won a world championship in the 15 k skate in 2007 in Japan and a silver medal as part of the Norwegian relay team at the Vancouver Olympics last year, while his compatriot Ole Einar Bjoerndalen has three individual World Cup podiums, including a victory.
Burke, 28, is one of the fastest skiers on the biathlon circuit, frequently posting course times among the top 10 on the World Cup. He hasn’t raced in a cross-country competition in at least a decade, he said, but if the opportunity arose to mix it up as part of the U.S. relay team, he’d jump at it.
“I think especially a 10 k, with head-to-head skiing, is probably my best race, and if I was in good form, I feel like I’d definitely be competitive,” he said. “I think the biathletes who have switched over and done it…have shown in the past few years that they can be very successful.”
Burke said he’d only consider racing if the U.S. Ski Team (USST) expressed interest—which so far hasn’t happened, he said.
But in an interview, USST Head Coach Chris Grover said that he would “absolutely” consider starting Burke as part of an American 4×10 k squad.
“Our relays often start fast and then trail off in the skate leg, so finding some strong skaters would be fantastic,” he said.
Key to Burke’s participation would be finding an event that worked with his schedule, given that biathlon is his first priority. The relay at this season’s cross-country World Championships in Oslo, for example, falls on the same day as the men’s 10 k sprint at biathlon Worlds in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia.
Most likely, Burke said, his first test on the cross-country circuit would come at the traditional early-season tune-up races in Beitostolen, Norway, in the next couple of years, which he hoped could garner “some sort of interest from the Ski Team.” Burke said that he had already discussed that plan with his coaches, and “they’re very supportive of it.”
John Farra, who oversees the USST in his job as nordic director at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), said that his organization wouldn’t hesitate to give Burke a shot at a relay at some point. While Farra said that he hadn’t given the idea too much thought, given the minimal overlap between the cross-country and biathlon circuits, he did note that USSA has a good relationship with the U.S. Biathlon Association—and that the two wouldn’t hesitate to try out the scheme at some point.
“The most likely opportunities for this are when we are together at the same venue at the same time, which is generally at the Olympics,” Farra wrote in an e-mail. “So as we get closer to the Olympics, if we all feel this is a strategy to consider we will do just that.”
As to whether he’d be willing to race a cross-country relay leg for the U.S. in 2014, Burke was clear.
“I’m sure racing in Sochi would be tricky with the schedules, but if it was at all possible, I would want in,” he said.
Farra also said that he would have no problem reciprocating and sending one of the top US cross-country skiers to race a biathlon relay, an idea he recently floated to USBA CEO Max Cobb. “He laughed of course,” said Farra.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.