Scattered across the United States are a handful of skiers belonging to an exclusive club—one that includes Kris Freeman, Colin Rodgers, and Morgan Smyth.
Earlier this month, biathlete Tim Burke became the club’s newest member, but not by choice. Instead, he joined the other three when he lay down on an operating table in Lake Placid and went under the knife, to relieve the symptoms of compartment syndrome.
Quietly, Burke had endured the condition since January, and he finally had surgery on April 9, after finishing his season on the World Cup circuit. He should be back to full strength by next winter, but in an interview Tuesday, Burke said that the compartment syndrome had been a significant detriment to his 2011 campaign.
Just how much is unclear, but there’s no question that it helped to quash Burke’s hopes of repeating his banner 2010 season, in which he became the first-ever American biathlete to capture the yellow bib worn by the World Cup overall leader. In 2011, one year after a campaign that included three podiums and a handful of top-10 finishes, Burke failed to crack even the top 15.
“I had really high expectations this year, and I felt like I had made big improvements,” he said. “It wasn’t to be this year—it’s hard to say how much [compartment syndrome] played a role in that, but it was definitely part of it.”
Burke had fought some minor problems with his legs in past seasons, but they worsened drastically in January after a World Cup in Rupholding, Germany, in heavy snow. From that point forward, Burke said, his skiing was hampered in “nearly every race.”
For Burke, the condition wasn’t especially painful, but it still caused him to lose power from his lower legs when he was skiing—forcing him to alter his technique.
“There were times when I felt great, and I wanted to go, but I couldn’t get my technique together in that area, to really feel the push,” he said. “Some races were worse than others, but it would come back all the time, and in training, as well.”
His stability in standing shooting was also severely affected, and he said his feet often felt like they were falling asleep, making it difficult to find a comfortable position.
Indeed, between the 2010 and 2011 season, Burke’s overall shooting percentage dropped nearly seven points, from 79.2 to 72.4, according to the website Biathlon.com.ua. (Figures from the International Biathlon Union were unavailable.)
“At the level we have now, if you have a slight little problem, it’s not so easy to perform,” said Per Nilsson, the U.S. team’s head coach. “He could survive—he was skiing really well this season, still—but he was held down.”
After the races in Rupholding, Burke knew something was wrong, and suspected that the problem was compartment syndrome. Consultations with doctors proved inconclusive, though, and he wasn’t diagnosed until returning home to Lake Placid in late March, when he could get pressure tests done on his legs.
In the mean time, he kept on racing, all the way through the World Championships in Russia, and the final World Cups in Norway. While Burke couldn’t ski or shoot the way he wanted, he said he still felt like the condition hadn’t progressed to the point where he couldn’t have a good result—which was why he continued to compete.
Over that portion of the season, Burke took a number of measures to alleviate his symptoms, including icing, massage, and creative tape jobs; by the end of the year, he said, it was practically a new trick for every race. But none of them really worked, which became more and more frustrating.
“It was really tough mentally, just starting in the race, and not knowing if, and when, it was going to flare up and slow me down,” he said. “It was always in the back of my mind coming into shooting, too: ‘How are my legs going to react when I try to stand still? Are they going to start shaking?’ That definitely wore—to the point where it made the decision to do surgery really easy, when I came home.”
Throughout the year, Burke never made his problems public; he said he told only his coaches, support staff, and a few other athletes.
“I just didn’t want to be answering questions about it after every race, and from the media—just because I was already thinking about it a lot,” he said. “Answering questions about it every day wasn’t going to make it any easier on me, mentally, so I decided to hold off, and keep it under wraps.”
After arriving home, Burke consulted with a handful of other athletes who’d had the surgery—including Freeman, Rodgers, and Smyth—along with some doctors, and ultimately decided to have the procedure done in Lake Placid. That way, he could recover at home, with easy access to physical therapy at the Olympic Training Center.
Burke had the surgery done on April 9, and his first day of logged training was on Tuesday, 17 days after the procedure. He said he expects to be jogging in a couple of weeks—and while he was told that a full recovery would take roughly three months, Burke said he was confident he’d be back up to speed before then.
Neither Burke nor Nilsson, his coach, said that they expected the surgery or recovery to hinder Burke’s racing in the upcoming winter. In fact, Nilsson said he was excited to see the difference in Burke’s skiing.
Both said they also see the recovery period as an opportunity to work on aspects of Burke’s training that normally get short-shrift.
“I’m hoping it will let me address some of my weaknesses,” he said. “I’ll be able to do a lot more shooting. I’m going to be able to do a lot of core strength and flexibility stuff—stuff that I have never been too keen on in my training before.”
As for what brought on the problem, Burke said he was still unsure, especially since his training hadn’t changed much over the last two years. Nilsson wasn’t either, although he speculated that perhaps some minor technique changes involving the angle of Burke’s feet could have had something to do with it. And, for the coming season, Nilsson said he would like to try to move Burke’s rollerski bindings forward, so that he’s not lifting as much weight with his toe.
“If you train as much as they do, if you do that for a longer period of time,” Nilsson said, “you will feel it.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.