Standing trailside in Pokljuka, Slovenia on Dec. 19, the world's best biathletes were confronted with less than ideal conditions: single-digit temperatures and bone-chilling winds.
For Paul Smiths native Tim Burke and Lake Placid resident Lowell Bailey - two-time Olympians currently competing in Vancouver - the frigid weather was nothing new. If anything, it was a reminder of home, when the pair would race on Tuesday nights at Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake with other area children, including 2009 Nordic Combined World Champion and four-time Olympian Billy Demong.
"Before our sprint race, Lowell and I were joking around because it was really cold and windy, kind of a nasty day," Burke said. "Everyone was kind of complaining about going out and having to race. Lowell and I joked around with each other saying, 'Hey, it's definitely no colder than some of the Tuesday night races we used to do at Dewey Mountain. We can get through this one if we did it when we were kids.'"
Biathlete Tim Burke is among the favorites to bring home a medal from the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Burke not only got through the race, he took eighth place, putting him second in the overall world cup standings. The next day, he finished sixth in the pursuit race to take the overall World Cup lead, something no other American has ever done in biathlon.
Burke, Bailey and Demong are now among the world's best athletes in their sports. As young children they raced against each other at Dewey Mountain, in Lake Placid, Old Forge and throughout the North Country. Later, they competed for New York Ski Educational Foundation. Demong and Burke also skied together on the Saranac Lake High School team. Bailey went to high school in Lake Placid after moving at age 10 from Old Forge, where he had moved from North Carolina at just a few years of age.
The three - along with more than a dozen others with ties to this region, including Lake Placid biathlete Haley Johnson, Lake Placid alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht and Saranac Lake ski jumper Peter Frenette - are a product of this region and have been called the strongest contingent of Adirondack athletes ever. Those born here were raised in a rugged area with long winters and plenty of opportunities to ski. They also benefitted from growing up in the years after the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, taking advantage the world-class facilities and the excitement left in the wake of the Games.
"Sometimes it takes time for things like an Olympics to take effect," said the 29-year-old Demong, whose mother Helen was pregnant with him when she attended the 1980 Winter Olympics. "It's been 30 years since Lake Placid hosted the Games, and we're seeing the benefit now."
Following the older boys
Burke, Bailey and Demong all showed talent and determination from an early age. But there were other factors to their development, including having a strong contingent of athletes to compete against. Saranac Lake resident Matt Cook and Tim's older brother Sean both played a big role in the early development of Tim Burke and Demong - and Bailey later on. Throughout their childhood, the Olympians would spend a lot of time watching that older tandem standing on the podium.
In high school, Cook and Sean Burke were seniors when Demong was a sophomore and Tim Burke was an eighth-grader.
As a freshman in 1993, Cook was the first-ever nordic state champion for Saranac Lake High School, which he won at a competition held at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Sean Burke medaled with a sixth-place finish in the same race.
In the inaugural Saranac Lake Nordic Ski Challenge in 1994 at Paul Smith's College, Sean Burke took first in the scholastic boys challenge. Cook was second, Demong came in third and Tim Burke finished fifth.
When Cook and Sean Burke were seniors in 1996, the high school team placed third in the state competition in Northville. Cook took fourth place, Sean Burke finished fifth and Demong was 13th. Another close friend, Zach Handler, took 14th and Tim Burke finished 21st.
That same year, Sean Burke won the 25-kilometer Keskinada Loppet in Gatineau, Quebec. Cook finished second.
"Growing up, (Sean) had a huge influence on my skiing because I always wanted to do everything he was doing, and I always tried to keep up with him, which is something I was never able to do," Tim Burke said. "But I kept trying. That definitely pushed me to improve a lot."
Early years of skiing
One big advantage these skiers had was getting on skis at a young age. The families - Demongs, Burkes, Handlers and Cooks - all skied together before the children even knew how to read. Those families also included three Cook daughters, one of whom was Annelies Cook, a former national champion in biathlon, and Bill's sister Katy Demong, a junior world's competitor in biathlon.
"The kids were up at Avalanche Lake at 5 years of age without discomfort," Matt Cook's father George recalled about the eight-mile round-trip ski trip in the High Peaks that includes several difficult descents.
George Cook said he would tie a 15-foot rope to himself and attach half a ski pole to the other end for his children to grab. He would pull the children up the steep hills and release them on the downhills.
"Pretty soon, they could go anywhere I could go," George Cook said.
Jack Burke, Tim and Sean's father, talked about taking the children on short trips into the backcountry in Paul Smiths, visiting nearby lean-tos. To encourage the children, he would feed them chocolate at designated points on the trip.
Sean Burke recalled that his father also emphasized that having fun was a main ingredient. In addition to taking trips to Fish Pond and Jenkins Mountain, they would ski near the house.
"My parents made it really fun," Sean Burke said. "We totally dug it. Not even just going on trips, but skiing everyday after school in our backyard, building jumps in our driveway and going up and down the driveway until dinner."
Tuesday night races
When the future Olympians weren't skiing in the backcountry as young children, one place they would go was Dewey Mountain. On Tuesday nights, they would race through dimly lit woods down steep, narrow and windy trails.
"I just have this vivid memory of those Tuesday night races and those boys just flying down the mountain in a tuck," Jack Burke said. "If you can ski Dewey fast, you get to Van Hoevenberg and it's no big deal. It's very challenging. Them having learned there was just so important to their development."
Adirondack Daily Enterprise articles from the 1990s recall their exploits at Dewey. One in March of 1995 features 13-year-old Tim Burke racing with then 14-year-old Demong and Mary Shanley on what was called "Team Speedball" in the Slip and Slide competition. Not surprisingly, the trio took first place in the "Big Dogs" Division.
It was in middle school and NYSEF that Bailey would become a member of the group. Demong remembered that he would compete more against Bailey than the others because they were the same age.
"Lowell and I were more like rivals," Demong said. "We were friends, but we were the same age. It seemed like Lowell and I, for a period when we were 11, 12, 13, were always one-two in all the races in Bill Koch."
A February 1998 account in the Enterprise reports Bailey "shattered Dewey's five-kilometer record by more than one minute" with a time of 12:32. Tim Burke and good friend Mike Stemp took second and third. Another article from March of 1998 reported Burke and Bailey teaming up to win an 8k two-person relay in 23 minutes and 10 seconds.
"At that time, I felt like every Tuesday night was a world championship race," Tim Burke recalled. "Bill, my brother, Matt Cook. All these guys. It was so competitive."
Kris Seymour, who coached at Saranac Lake High School and also with NYSEF, remembers the boys would push themselves, even when not racing. Often, he would give the children 15-minute breaks to ski on their own. That often meant the boys would head to the top of Dewey Mountain for a wild run down the hill. On more than one occasion, there were serious crashes. During one particularly bad one, Demong broke his tailbone and Mike Stemp received a concussion.
"They were very much what a fire pilot is like, where they were always pushing the envelope," Seymour said. "They were so hungry to go faster, to be on the edge of what they could handle."
As the boys grew older, they started training with NYSEF, focusing on other skills beside skiing. Cook, Sean Burke and Demong began ski jumping while Tim Burke and Bailey went to the shooting range for biathlon.
"I have a really strong memory of Billy, I was probably in eighth grade," Cook said. "He started ski jumping with us. I remember doing plyometrics at the Olympic training center with him and watching him - the natural talent that came out of him (was amazing)."
That training eventually led Demong to qualifying for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in the nordic combined. Tim Burke started his career with the U.S. National Biathlon Team at age 16. Bailey made the junior world biathlon team in high school and focused on it for the next three years before competing for the University of Vermont.
"NYSEF exposed that entire group to a really high standard of competition," Cook said.
Fast forwarding to today, Demong, Bailey and Burke could wind up with medals this month in the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Demong is one of the leaders on perhaps the strongest ever U.S. Nordic Combined Team and is projected to win an individual medal. Burke is coming off the best-ever World Cup season by a U.S. biathlete and is a strong candidate to reach the podium. And Bailey could win a medal on the biathlon relay team, which also includes Burke. In the last Olympics, the U.S. biathlon relay team took ninth and this squad is much stronger and more experienced.
But what the athletes are doing is not only shooting for medals but helping their programs reach new levels. In the process, they are creating a legacy for future American and Adirondack nordic skiers.
"When (Bill) was a young guy charging around the hills of Dewey, his heroes were Norwegians and Germans and Finns, and he at best, could read stories about them in magazines or maybe see a video clip that someone had recorded in Europe," Seymour said. "He never had the opportunity to know his heroes."
That isn't true for Adirondack nordic skiers of today. Demong, Tim Burke and Bailey not only cheer each other on at World Cup races and the Olympics, they have shown through the years a willingness to help the next generation of skiers.
Recently, Tupper Lake nordic skier Charlie Bencze competed in a race in Soldier's Hollow, Utah, near where Demong owns a house. Demong, who didn't know Bencze, went to dinner with the Tupper Lake High School junior and showed up at his race to cheer him on.
"It was fun. It got me all fired up," Demong said. "It's cool to see some young talent coming out of the area and being able to meet him and watch him a little bit and watch him put the hammer down."
Bencze, who took fifth place in the high school state championships last year, now wears a U.S. ski suit given to him by Demong when he competes. He wore the ski suit two weeks ago when he won a Tuesday night high school race at Dewey Mountain.
The Olympic trio has also shown a willingness to speak in local classrooms and show up to give pointers, whether it's at Dewey, NYSEF or a local elementary school.
As for Cook, he was NYSEF's nordic director until last winter when he became general manager at Mount Pisgah Ski Center in Saranac Lake. A former U.S. Nordic Combined National Team member, he still competes. The same night Bencze won at Dewey, Cook took first place for adults. Jack Burke was also one of 59 skiers racing through the dark that night.
After living in Alaska for about six years, Sean Burke returned to Saranac Lake a few years ago, at first coaching young skiers at NYSEF and then Dewey. Two years ago, he competed in the World Telemark Freeskiing Championships at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. He took 12th place in an event that featured 50 of the world's best telemark skiers. He and his fiance, JoAnn recently had a child, so he is taking a hiatus from competing and coaching but is likely will return in the future.
For the tight-knit group, skiing is more than a hobby or an occupation. It's a part of their lifestyle, and they are hoping it continues to spread to the coming generations.
"That's incredibly important to me," Tim Burke said. "I'm proud of my sport, and I'm excited to be able to share that with more people, and I hope that my results can bring some well-deserved attention to biathlon, and I hope it will also encourage more kids to give it a try."