WHISTLER, British Columbia - Tim Burke was an animal on the ski course Sunday. He had fire in his eyes and, on the last lap at least, was cranking visibly more powerfully and intensely than any other biathlete near him.
If only it hadn't been for his third shooting round, in which he missed three of five shots, he may well have medalled in the 15-kilometer mass start, a biathlon race where 30 athletes start at the same time and race to the finish.
As it was, Burke finished 18th. But he approached the finish line pumping harder than most of the other top 20. Only one biathlete who missed four shots finished better: Dominik Landertinger of Austria, who placed seventh.
Tim Burke skis hard on his last lap of Sunday's 15k mass start biathlon race at the Winter Olympics near Whistler.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
After hitting every target in the two prone rounds, Burke had skied into the lead pack and hung at third place, then fourth. He said afterward he discovered that "it was a really easy pace" the lead guys were setting. Instead of passing them right away, he figured it would be more strategic to hang with them, draft the leader, be cool for the shooting and wait for his moment. Gliding into the shooting gate for his first standing session, he said he did feel relaxed, but he also "had really shaky legs." Maybe he was too relaxed and threw himself off, he suspected afterward.
"I think I ended up in a zone that was too low," he said. "It's tough to explain those kinds of things."
Miss. Miss. Hit. Miss. Hit. The Americans in the crowd were suddenly drained.
"My heart sank," said Joe Delgado of Tucson, Ariz., watching from the noisy crowd.
"We're triathletes, so we know that bad, crap feeling, like when you get a flat tire," said Delgado's friend Ted Rasoumoff, also of Tucson.
"Of course, it was immediately frustrating," Burke told reporters afterward, "but I knew with my skiing I could make up some time."
He certainly did. He didn't keep track of how many skiers he passed, but "a few every loop for sure - three on the last loop."
Burke missed a fourth shot in the last round. Each miss demands a penalty loop that usually lasts about 20 seconds for a fast skier like him. Take away a minute for those third-round misses, and his time would put him in second place, just nine seconds behind gold medalist Evgeny Ustyugov of Russia, who shot clean all the way through.
The silver medal was earned with another feat of amazing skiing. Martin Fourcade of France missed two in the first round and a third in the last but powered back to second place, 10.5 seconds behind Ustyugov.
The bronze went to Pavol Hurajt of Slovakia, the only other biathlete to shoot clean.
Jeremy Teela of Utah, the only other American to qualify for the mass start due to his ninth-place finish in the sprint, also missed four but finished 29th, second to last. He was out sick with sinus problems in Thursday's 20k individual race, and even though he felt good Saturday, "Maybe it took a little more out of me than I thought," he said.
"After the second loop, I was zapped; I hit a wall," he said. On the last loop, "I was just trying to finish the course."
It was another cloudless, sunny day at the Whistler Olympic Park, the fifth in a row, with the temperature around 40 but the snow cooler and hard packed.
No Americans had qualified for the women's 12.5k mass start that followed, but Burke's multi-medalist girlfriend, Andrea Henkel of Germany, finished ninth, missing only one shot. The gold went to her teammate Magdalena Neuner, silver went to Olga Zaitseva of Russia, and bronze went to Simone Hauswald of Germany.
The only thing left for American biathletes is the relay: Feb. 23 for women and Feb. 26 for men. The same four U.S. men as relayed in the 2006 Torino Olympics will do so here: Burke, Teela, Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid and Jay Hakkinen of Alaska. They had high hopes for themselves coming into these Olympics, but all four have been disappointed with their results so far.
Teela said "it's still possible" for them to medal, but he will have to correct his problems from today.
"Anything can happen, but it's a four-man race, and all four guys need to be on their A-game."
These Olympics have have seen a parade of surprises in biathlon. In eight events, four each for women and men, only one biathlete has won more than one medal, and that was the sprint winner, Vincent Jay of France, taking the bronze in pursuit, in which start times are based on sprint results.
Really, anything can happen.
"It's biathlon," Burke said. "It's why I think it's the most exciting winter sport there is."