When biathlete Tim Burke skis to the starting line of his next World Cup race in Germany this week, he will do so wearing a particularly unfamiliar piece of equipment.
The yellow bib.
It signifies the overall leader of the World Cup rankings, the most consistent performer in a variety of races over the course of the season. No American has ever worn it, and Burke described earning it as a "dream come true."
But the bib also symbolizes something much greater -- the vast strides that Burke and teammates such as Heber City's Jeremy Teela have made in the past four years, after toiling so long amid the vast sea of anonymity in a grueling sport that seldom makes news in their home country. Never before have Americans enjoyed as promising a view as they do heading into the 2010 Vancouver Games next month, hoping to win their first Olympic medal.
"That's immensely satisfying, to see how the whole group has done," said Max Cobb, the executive director of U.S. Biathlon. "That demonstrates a level that on the right day, they can be on the podium."
Of course, Burke has been the big story in the biathlon world since claiming the top spot last month in Slovenia last month, even though it might not have happened if the legendary Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway and his powerful teammate Emil Hegle Svendsen -- top two in the rankings, heading in -- had not skipped the meet in order to prepare for the Olympics.
Nevertheless, the 27-year-old from New York finished sixth, eighth and 14th in three races to ascend to the top and call a wave of unprecedented attention to his sport, in which competitors race for miles on cross country skis, stopping intermittently to shoot at tiny targets 50 meters away while their hearts pound away.
It was a monumental achievement that seemingly made all of Europe sit up and take notice.
After all, biathlon is hugely important there, where Germans and Norwegians in particular dominate the sport and enjoy celebrity status. Races draw thousands of fans -- more than 50,000 are expected to watch Burke defend the yellow bib in Oberhof this week -- and are broadcast on live television.
An overlooked American, Burke himself is probably better known there as merely the boyfriend of two-time Olympic gold medalist Andrea Henkel, and he has compared topping the standings to the Germans beating the United States in basketball.
"To finally get to this level ... is incredibly special for me," he said.
That's because Burke almost didn't make it.
His career was almost ended by a hip injury seven years ago that required a new surgical procedure to repair, and he missed a full season with a case of mononucleosis before the 2006 Turin Games, where he failed to crack the top 35 in any of his individual races.
But since U.S. Biathlon reorganized and hired new foreign coaches, Burke and his teammates have enjoyed an amazing ride.
Having moved back to Heber City after a stretch in Vermont, Teela snapped a 17-year World Cup medal drought last season when he claimed bronze on the Vancouver course that will be used for the Olympics. Burke opened this season by winning silver and bronze medals in Sweden, with the silver equalling the highest finish ever for an American. And the team relay -- with Burke, Teela, Jay Hakkinen and Lowell Bailey -- has been creeping ever closer to a podium finish in a sport that has long been dominated by the Europeans.
The team spends about a month each year in Utah preparing for its season.
"It's part of having a good plan for four years and working hard every day to reach the special goals," coach Per Nilsson of Sweden said.
The athletes have credited Nilsson and fellow coach Armin Auchentaller -- the former head coach of the Italian national team replaced assistant Mikael Lofgren last spring -- with pushing them to new heights with a more demanding training program that included a sharper focus on shooting and more volume and intensity in the skiing.
"These coaches pushed us beyond what we thought we could handle as athletes," Teela said, "and it has been paying off."
The four top biathletes all have previous Olympic experience, and their promising results in Turin -- the relay team finished ninth, with Hakkinen 10th in the individual event before an epic meltdown in the pursuit -- helped persuade the U.S. Olympic Committee to quadruple its financial support of the team, Cobb said, to about $1 million a year.
The federation signed a six-year sponsorship agreement with TD Bank, too, starting in 2005 that annually provides a "very significant six-figure sum" that has helped pay for improved training and logistical support. Athletes enjoy a "meaningful stipend" now, Cobb said, allowing them to focus on training during the offseason rather than finding jobs to pay their bills.
There also has been enough money to allow Nilsson and Auchentaller to share coaching duties while divesting logistical responsibilities, add "world-class" technicians from Germany and the Czech Republic and arrange "really good training camps in the right places at the right times of year."
"I honestly believe I have the strongest team in the world and the best people," said Burke, who noted he had not earned so much as a single World Cup point before joining forces with Nilsson. "I really don't feel like I'm at a disadvantage to the Europeans now."
Of course, the results speak for themselves.
They speak so loudly, in fact, that Teela wishes the changes were made earlier in his career, when he suspects his body would have adapted to them even better. That's what the 33-year-old sees happening with younger teammates such as Burke and Bailey.
But he's plenty happy, as it is, preparing for his third Olympics with the confidence that comes from having been on the podium.
"It's one thing to go into the Games and say 'I want to do a top performance -- I want to do something I've never done' -- versus actually doing it before the Games," he said. "Now you're just trying to repeat a performance, instead of just hoping that something amazing -- a miracle -- is going to happen, and you're going to do something you haven't done yet.
"This go-round is a lot different."
Biathletes compete in several races that combine cross-country skiing with shooting:
Sprint » Men depart at regular intervals, cover 6.2 miles in three laps and stop twice to shoot five shots, once in a prone position, once standing. Each missed target requires the biathlete to ski a 150-meter penalty loop before continuing. Fastest time wins.
Pursuit » Biathletes start according to their time difference after the sprint, with the leader going first. Men cover 7.8 miles in five laps and shoot four times, twice prone and twice standing. Each miss means a penalty loop. Only the top 60 biathletes from the sprint compete. First across the line wins.
Mass start » All biathletes start at the same time, with the men covering 9.3 miles in five laps. They shoot four times, twice prone and twice standing, with extra time added for each missed target. Only the top 30 ranked biathletes race. Fastest time wins.
Individual » In the oldest biathlon event, men depart one at a time and cover 12.4 miles in five laps, shooting four times, twice prone and twice standing. Each missed target results in extra time added at the finish. Fastest time wins.
Relay » Four biathletes comprise each team, with the lead-off men starting together and tagging subsequent teammates to take their turns. Each racer skis 4.65 miles in three laps, shooting twice -- first prone, then standing -- with three extra bullets at each stop that must be loaded individually if needed. Each missed target after all eight bullets means a penalty loop. First team with all four members across the line wins.
Today's story marks the latest installment of a Tribune series prior to the start of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Previous installments include how bobsled drivers aim to put Utah on top of the Olympic podium, a profile of U.S. alpine skiing star Lindsey Vonn, a look at Vancouver's efforts to get ready for the Games and a story about American short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno. For those stories, go to http://www.sltrib.com/olympics.
The top four members of the U.S. biathlon team have made a lot of progress in the past four years:
|Tim Burke||27||Lake Placid, N.Y.||1st||2nd||2006|
|Jeremy Teela||33||Heber City, Utah||61st||3rd||2002, 2006|
|Jay Hakkinen||32||Kasilof, Alaska||69th||9th||1998, 2002,|
|Lowell Bailey||28||Lake Placid, N.Y.||78th||11th||2006|