On Friday, American biathlete Tim Burke finished fourth in the 10 k World Cup sprint in Oberhof, Germany, 20.1 seconds behind France’s Martin Fourcade.
A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been at all unusual to see Burke in that position, or even on the podium. He’s the 2013 World Championships silver medalist in the 20 k individual, but he had a couple of tough seasons, with compartment syndrome surgery in the middle. Last year, he was often sick and even ended his season early.
But before Christmas, he finished tenth in a sprint in Le Grand-Bornand, France. Then in the first race of 2018, he did even better.
“Today I definitely – I felt a lot better than I did in France,” Burke said in an interview. “I had a great break over Christmas, where I stayed in Seefeld, Austria, and was able to get in some solid weeks of training. Today was the first time in a long time where I felt like I started to feel like my old self again.”
Sure thing: it was Burke’s best finish since he was third in a sprint in Östersund, Sweden, in November, 2013.
The result also came in a special place, as Burke is married to former German gold medalist Andrea (Henkel) Burke.
“I have spent a lot of time training here over the last eight years,” Burke laughed. “It’s Andrea’s home town and I feel like the fans out there today were really behind me from the start, because of Andrea. So be able to have the best performance of my season and my best performance in a long time here was for sure special.”
Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen placed second, +8.1, and Johannes Thingnes Bø third, +10.2; except for Bø, who had two penalties, the other three men shot clean.
“I felt pretty good on the range today,” Burke told the IBU. “I felt like the wind, it was doable. I felt like you could hit. I have spent a lot of time training here so I was used to it, and had a good game plan.”
Plus ça change? This was Burke’s 11th top-four result in his career, and in all but two of those races, either Fourcade or Svendsen has been ahead of him. Sometimes both.
“I think today was my fifth fourth-place World Cup finish,” Burke said. “And every time it’s Martin and Emil. It’s tough not to think how nice it would be without those two. But today definitely felt familiar in a slightly painful way, having those two up at the top.”
The result was also a significant one for Svendsen, the former World Cup Total Score winner who hasn’t won a race since 2015. He opened the season with two fourth-place finishes in Östersund, but hadn’t raced since then after getting sick. But now he has his first podium of the season, and a chance for another in Saturday’s 12.5 k pursuit.
“That last loop was really tough,” Svendsen said of the sprint. “I missed the last month with sickness, so did not know what to expect here. I had no expectations, just wanted to come back and get some good feelings…I did feel a bit rusty on the skis after the lack of competition.”
The results set up a potentially thrilling 12.5 k pursuit for Saturday, with Norway’s Tarjei Bø also finishing just 6.8 seconds behind Burke.
“Tomorrow should be an exciting one,” Burke said. “Every race in Oberhof is very interesting with the challenging shooting conditions. I think tomorrow anything is still possible. I hope to continue to feel as good as I did today.”
Despite his many years, races, and training sessions in Oberhof, it doesn’t make the venue any easier to master on the range. The home German team’s top finisher, Arnd Peiffer, was 12th with two penalties. The wind is notoriously changeable, even when central Europe isn’t in the middle of a major storm like is has been for the past several days.
“Every race I basically go in with the same gameplan,” Burke said of the upcoming pursuit. “The trick is being able to stick to that. In the sprint it can me easier to do that because you’re by yourself. In the pursuit you’re shooting right next to the guys you’re fighting for places with. It can be a little trickier to stick to your gameplan. But I just look at tomorrow as a great opportunity to practice that going towards the Olympics.”
Besides shooting clean, Burke skied the 12th-fastest course time of the day, a signal of improving fitness; in the Le Grand-Bornand sprint, where he also shot clean, he had skied just the 29th-fastest time.
He was also aided by good skis and good staff.
“With the really wet conditions and raining the whole time, it was really tricky for the technicians today and our guys did a phenomenal job,” Burke said. “I was confident I was on if not the best, then some of the best skis out there today. Which helps a lot.”
In Le Grand-Bornand, he followed up his top-10 sprint by finishing 26th in the pursuit with three penalties. He hopes to do better in Oberhof.
And as he does, the Olympics loom, now just over a month away. In 2014, Burke was pegged as a favorite to win America’s first-ever Olympic medal in biathlon. This time around, after teammate Lowell Bailey became a World Champion last season, much of the focus has been on him.
“Actually it has been really nice for me this year to have less obligations and be able to focus more on my own things,” Burke said. “It has been great for me. I really enjoyed it, and I feel I’m benefitting from that.”
But with his racing improving, he might not be able to fly into PyeongChang under the radar.
“This time around is a lot time around than four years ago,” Burke said. “I had a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes on me four years ago. This time I feel more like a dark horse, but it doesn’t take too many races like today to start getting those questions and a little bit more pressure. But I guess I’m used to it at this point.”
Canada was led by Scott Gow in 32nd (+1:48.7), who had a single standing penalty (0+1), and his brother Christian Gow finished 36th (+1:50.3) with one standing miss as well (0+1). Brendan Green was 57th (+2:30.4) with three penalties (1+2), and in his first European World Cup race, Carsen Campbell finished finished 94th (+4:05.3) with two misses (2+0).
The U.S. started two men on Friday, with Sean Doherty finishing 84th (+3:24.4) with four penalties (3+1).
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.