By Olivia Dwyer
The Arctic Circle curves through Sweden just north of Östersund, a lakeside city of fifty thousand where daylight runs short in winter. White-hot lights illuminate Östersund’s ski stadium on the evening of November 30. Tim Burke glides through warm-ups as spectators adorned with cowbells, flags, and face paint fill the grandstand’s six thousand seats. They’re here for the first twenty-kilometer individual competition of the biathlon World Cup, a sport that combines skinny Nordic skis and target shooting. Tonight’s dramatic spectacle broadcasts to five million TV viewers across Europe.
Burke races 107 other skiers, each with an eight-pound rifle on his back, for five laps on a four-kilometer course. Between circuits, athletes stop at the stadium’s shooting range to fire five rounds in less than thirty seconds. They shoot prone on the first and third pass, bellies flat on rubber mats, silver-dollar-size targets in their sights. On the second and fourth pass, skiers stand, their hearts thumping at 180 beats per minute as they steady rasping breath and fatigued muscles. Each miss tacks a minute penalty onto their time, enough to knock a podium threat back ten places. Think of biathlon as a high-speed chase followed by a tense shoot-out. And then the Americans lose.
Or they did. Since Burke—who grew up in the Adirondacks—joined the World Cup in 2003, he’s led the U.S. program’s transformation from also-rans to legit contenders. Still, biathlon remains the only winter sport in which the United States lacks Olympic hardware. Not that Burke has announced a medal quest. “I don’t do this because I like to get my name out there,” he says. “For me, it’s about getting better at a challenging sport.”
But when Burke powers out of the start gate in Östersund, the thirty-five-year-old is beginning what will likely be his final season in competition, culminating in his fourth Winter Olympic Games—in South Korea in February. It will be his last shot at a historic first.
For biathlon’s origins, look to northern Europe. Scandinavian cave paintings hint that hunters first paired skis with weapons around 4000 B.C. By the 1700s, those ancient methods led to soldiers with firearms, and Scandinavian armies developed biathlon competitions as training for winter warfare. These military tactics launched a recreational sport adopted in cold, snowy mountains across northern Europe. Men’s biathlon became an Olympic sport in 1960 (women joined in 1990), and the PyeongChang program includes six events: a sprint, a pursuit, the twenty-kilometer individual competition, a mass start, and two relays. Expect the Europeans to storm every podium.
Our underdog story starts on Staten Island. Jack and Maryjean Burke, Tim’s parents, ditched the outer borough for the Adirondacks in 1976. Jack’s finance background led to a job with Paul Smith’s College; he and Maryjean settled near campus along the St. Regis River. That’s where they raised three kids: Sean, Katie, and Tim, the youngest, born two years after the 1980 Olympics swept through Lake Placid. The Olympic afterglow bolstered the regional winter-sports scene. Ski trails appeared on Saranac Lake’s Dewey Mountain, and a Bill Koch Ski League chapter started up to teach Nordic skiing to local youngsters.
One by one, the Burke kids joined the pack looping Dewey’s trails, and the whole family showed up for Tuesday night races. As a preschooler, Tim watched Sean and other young skiers race for Tootsie Pops. In his kindergarten season, Tim poled for the finish as if those sugar crystals were precious metal. “We’d always say he’d bleed through his nose and ears before he’d stop,” says Maryjean. Tim befriended another Dewey kid, Billy Demong. Their childhood games looked a lot like endurance tests.
Soon, both joined the New York Ski Education Foundation cross-country program. And the region’s Olympic legacy—world-class venues, expert coaches, an elite training center—elevated a perfect alchemy of group dynamics. Tim’s older brother and his peers set benchmarks: Sean was a junior national champion in Nordic combined and won the state title in cross-country running in high school. Then Tim, along with Demong and recent North Country transplant Lowell Bailey, gave chase.
“They were each other’s biggest competition. That can tear teammates apart, but it brought them closer together,” says former coach Kris Cheney-Seymour. “It’s a story of three brothers who grew up in different families.” And became Olympians—Demong is a five-time Olympian who won the first U.S. gold in Nordic combined; Bailey and Burke are on track for their fourth Olympics in 2018. (Not to mention their NYSEF teammates Annelies Cook and Haley Johnson, both Olympic veterans.) From the start, Tim modeled professionalism: never late, gear prepared, immune to teenage distractions, dedicated to training.
That’s never wavered. And Lowell would know—he’s been Tim’s training partner for twenty-plus years. “What’s unique about Tim is his ability to be fiercely competitive but also completely humble,” says Lowell. “His success is very much due to his inner drive to push himself to the limits of his ability, every day.”
After the two Adirondack skiers competed at the 2006 Torino Games, U.S. Biathlon lobbied the U.S. Olympic Committee for funds. That supplied a new coach, the Swede Per Nilsson, and a 3.5-kilometer track at the Lake Placid Ski Jumping Complex for off-season training. Tim and Lowell put in forty hours every week in the summers. A typical day might see them run ten miles to Avalanche Lake and back for a morning workout. Afternoons were spent at the ski-jump course or the shooting range. They would mimic race stress by doing sprints or dead lifts before target practice. Plus there were regular visits to the Olympic Training Center gym and roller-ski sessions on a twelve-meter treadmill.
Their dedication got results. In December 2009, Tim notched three podium finishes on the World Cup to become the first American to wear the yellow bib as points leader. That led to media hype at the 2010 Vancouver Games; those distractions and poor snow conditions led to disappointing finishes. Then, in 2011, Tim had leg surgery. But he rallied to finish sixth overall on the 2012 World Cup. And at the World Championships in February 2013, on another cold night under the lights in the Czech Republic, he gutted out a silver medal performance in the twenty-kilometer race—the first American on a world podium since Josh Thompson in 1987. (His mom, a retired medical secretary, watched the race online at work.) Twelve months later, at the 2014 Sochi Games, he finished eighth in the twenty-kilometer race. The difference between that result, an American best, and a bronze medal? One missed shot.
But Tim didn’t wallow. His perpetual forward motion was helped by perspective from Andrea Henkel, a German biathlete with two Olympic golds and eight world titles. She and Tim married in 2014. “In a long career, you usually have more bad races than good races,” says Andrea. “You have to get over it really quick and see what you can do better.” Meanwhile, Tim’s relentless drive to improve elevated those around him. “A team is defined by its hardest-working athlete,” says Max Cobb, president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon. “That was Tim, every step of the way. His leadership by example brought our whole program to a new level. It’s not about being in the top ten anymore. It’s about being on the podium, going after that yellow bib.”
And shiny hardware. At the 2017 World Championships—thanks to perfect shooting—Bailey claimed a gold medal, winning by 3.3 seconds. It was the first biathlon world title for the United States. Tim celebrated his friend’s achievement, then cut his own season short days later. Back in Lake Placid, he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He recovered, then returned to training with a singular focus: the 2018 Olympics. “In the back of his mind, Tim knows that he and Lowell have raced each other hundreds of times,” says Demong. “If Lowell can do it, he can do it.”
In Östersund, Tim missed three targets and finished thirty-second, still good enough to qualify as the top American. After Östersund, he planned to compete in five more World Cups around Europe before traveling to South Korea. The twenty-kilometer race falls on February 15, just twelve days after his thirty-sixth birthday. It’s another milestone away from home. Without Andrea. Far from his parents. Distant from his brother and sister. Removed from Paul Smiths neighbors, old friends, and coaches. No North Country kid makes the Olympics alone. But now he’s on his own.
So Tim leaves history behind. Sets aside effort and sacrifice. Erases loved ones from his mind. He crafts a plan so simple it’s impossible to forget. Watch pole placement. Don’t let them get vertical, always drive down the track. Keep the body leaning forward. Make gravity and body position do the work, not tired muscles. And when that finger lands on the trigger, forget everything else. “I focus on the sight, then watch for follow-through,” he says. “The rifle goes up, down, and I move to the next target.”
That relentless vision has earned Tim Burke a career full of shining moments. And perhaps a flash of gold.