“I thought my championships were over,” Tim Burke said on Thursday in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Repbulic. “I felt so bad.”
The 31-year-old American biathlete spoke these words in a press conference a few minutes after taking silver in the 20 k individual at the 2013 Biathlon World Championships. After placing 28th and 32nd in the opening two races of the championships last week, Burke saw no reason to expect better from the 20 k before he lined up for the start. It made sense that a few hours after making U.S. Biathlon history, as he sat with a microphone in his hands with flashbulbs going off around him, that he was still trying to grapple with how he had just turned his championships completely around.
Asked how long he had been waiting to result like Thursday’s, he responded, “I think my whole life.”
There are many reasons Burke’s performance on Thursday is so notable. It ended a 26-year medal drought for America at World Championships — the last time a U.S. biathlete reached the podium was in 1987, when Josh Thompson medaled in Lake Placid, N.Y. It also fulfilled the promise he showed in 2009 when he wore the yellow World Cup leader bib for the first time. But for Burke, the true triumph of his new silver medal was that it proved he can perform as well as he always believed he could, a fact he started to doubt in the midst of up-and-down results this winter. He still doesn’t know what changed between the pursuit and the 20 k, but he knows not to doubt himself again.
“I was just so disappointed and down in the way I was skiing, and I credit having some great people around me,” Burke said in a phone interview late Thursday evening. “[USBA Head Coach] Per Nilsson came up to me after the pursuit and saw how disappointed I was and just said, ‘Don’t you dare give up on yourself. You can still do this here, just believe in yourself.’ And that helped me a lot.”
Comebacks in sport are the reason we watch in the first place; when they happen we know we’re seeing history in the making. When they happen, we believe anything is possible. Burke has reached podiums on the World Cup before, including this very season, but as he noted afterwards it’s different when it happens at World Championships. They give out medals there, they raise flags and play anthems, and if you can beat almost everyone when they’re at their best it somehow matters so much more. His coaches have been waiting for a day like Thursday for years. “I was crying in the woods,” Nilsson wrote in an email.
Burke entered these championships with high expectations. The Paul Smiths, New York, native put in a “great year” of training and began the season with strong results in December, only to be plagued by illness in the New Year. After logging what he thought was good training block prior to World Championships, he came to Nové Město feeling ready and recovered.
“Then I simply felt really bad in the first two races,” Burke said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Despite coming up short in the pursuit Burke kept his head up, and on Thursday his years of hard work paid off.
How does it feel to finally stand on the podium after such a rollercoaster season?
“I’m a little overwhelmed, honestly,” Burke said. “It happened so fast. I crossed the finish line, realized I was going to get silver, and then you’re on the podium and at the press conference and I’m just getting back to the hotel now. I feel like I need a little time to let it settle in.”
Though his first two races at the championships were a disappointing, Burke could tell when he started the 20 k that he could be on his way to a great race.
“I felt good. I was shooting zeroes in the first few stages,” Burke said. “I thought I was up there, but I didn’t really know I was in a medal position. Today there was no wind on the range, it was pretty standard, basic shooting, so I knew a lot of the guys would shoot well.”
Burke specifically asks his coaches not to give him splits when he’s out on course, so for more than half his race he drew motivation solely from within himself. When he heard the announcer say he was fighting for the gold medal as he returned to the stadium for the last shooting stage, he pushed the information out of his mind and focused on what he could control.
“I’ve had some problems before just getting caught up in what everyone else is doing,” Burke said. “I recognized it right away, that I started thinking about it, and luckily I caught it really early once I started shooting. I just focused on my cues.”
His only missed shot came in that final standing stage, but Burke was unfazed. He left the range in second place and stayed there to finish 23.5 seconds behind France’s Martin Fourcade and ten seconds ahead of Fredrik Lindström of Sweden. Though he was a late starter amongst the faster seeds, he waited until the last finisher crossed the line to let himself celebrate a personal best and historic day for the team and country he represents.
“I’m so proud,” Burke said in a USBA press release. “It’s been such a big effort by our entire team and organization, and it feels great to help finally make that come together.”
In a community as close as U.S. biathlon, Burke’s accomplishment was a momentous occasion for the national program and his coaches.
“It’s just so exciting and a phenomenal performance by Tim today,” said Max Cobb, U.S. Biathlon CEO. “All the evidence that Tim could do this has been there for a long time, but he put it together on the most important day of the year. The whole high performance staff has done an outstanding job, not just here but over the last six years that we’ve been working towards this. I couldn’t be prouder of all of them. The whole group really helped Tim get this done today. It’s a phenomenal milestone for Tim and biathlon in America.”
Burke was quick to agree that the biathlon community played no small part in his success.
“Thanks to the fans back home for all their support,” he said. “I got a lot of encouraging messages over the last few days from people telling me to keep my head up and to keep at it, and it worked.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.