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Burke overcomes many obstacles to ascend his sport

Tim Burke's journey to the top of the World Cup biathlon standings has been more of a white-knuckled roller-coaster ride than a smooth glide in the snow.

Since 2002, he's overcome a series of obstacles — a career-threatening hip operation, a broken wrist, impacted teeth, mononucleosis and over-training, which led to fatigue and spectacular falls — to become the best biathlete in U.S. history.

Right up there now with the Europeans who have long dominated the sport, Burke looks back at all those trials and tribulations as the briquettes that fueled his rise to the top. He's aiming for America's first Olympic biathlon medal at Vancouver.

"I've learned a lot from every one of those. I've learned what my limits are in training, how much I can push it, when I need to rest," Burke said. "And all those little lessons that I've learned the hard way over the last seven years has helped me a lot in this year's training and hopefully it will help me reach the top here soon."

Burke already has a vantage point like no American before him.

He will wear the coveted yellow bib as the overall points leader in the World Cup standings on the circuit's stop in Oberhof, Germany, next month, after making history Sunday with a great finish in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit race in Pokljuka, Slovenia.

Burke has 253 points to lead Simon Fourcade of France by seven.

For the U.S. biathletes, this was their "Miracle on Snow" moment, and it only cemented their lofty expectations for scaling the podium in Vancouver.

"This really is a historic moment for all of us," said Max Cobb, U.S. Biathlon's executive director.

"For Tim and the rest of the team, this will just increase the self-confidence. Yes we can!!!" U.S. head coach Per Nilsson wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Monday.

The 27-year-old Burke began the World Cup season with two podium finishes, a second and a third. The silver medal matched the highest World Cup showing by an American. His sixth-place finish Sunday vaulted him to uncharted snows.

"Everybody is so proud of him," Nilsson wrote. "But the proudest should be Tim. He is the one that has been working/training/sweating/shooting the most every day."

Biathlon combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship and is the most popular winter sport in Europe, with millions of viewers each week tuning in for World Cup competitions.

Biathletes ski as fast as they can, then try to calm down quickly to hit a target the size of a half dollar 50 meters away from a prone position and one the size of a coffee cup saucer from a standing position. For every miss, they have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop.

Growing up just outside Lake Placid, Burke was drawn to the sport at age 12 and was recruited to the national team at 16. A degenerative hip nearly ended his career seven years ago, something he thought back to on Sunday.

"It hasn't been an easy road for me," he said. "I've had a lot of ups and downs. In 2002, I had a major hip surgery where many of the doctors I was working with questioned if I'd be able to continue as a full-time professional athlete.

"And then after that, I had a season out with mono (in 2004) and a lot of other little things along the way and to finally get to this level and take the yellow bib today is incredibly special. I think all those down times and all those things I've had to come down from make it that much more special."

Burke credits his experience and a team effort for his breakthrough season.

"I really don't feel like I'm at a disadvantage to the Europeans now," he said, citing his Swedish coach and the team's European managers and wax technicians for lifting the performance of U.S. biathletes.

Nilsson was hired to coach the U.S. team after the 2006 Turin Games, with the goal of helping the Americans win their first Olympic medal. Burke's success has made that target seem much closer heading into the Vancouver Games.

"I thought I was training really hard and then I started working with Per. He's brought up a new meaning of hard training," Burke said. "He's brought up not only the volume of my training but the intensity of my training a lot and with that, my results have come up accordingly."

Burke had an epiphany in Cesana, Italy, at the Turin Games. There, a split bullet that hit the target but failed to drop it cost teammate Jay Hakkinen the bronze medal.

"Jay's result in the individual there was really big and so close to a podium finish. I think that inspired us all to work that much harder and try to do everything we possibly can to make it happen this time around," Burke said.

Under Nilsson's tutelage, Burke took seventh at the 2007 World Championships in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy, and last year became the first U.S. biathlete to have the fastest scratch time in international competition when he finished seventh in the pursuit at the World Cup in Oslo, Norway.

Then came the two podium World Cup finishes in Sweden this season.

"Obviously, I was really excited and happy to have my first podium. At the same time, I had thought about it so many times, been there so many times in my head, that when I got there it actually felt really normal, like I had done it before," Burke said.

Burke figures he's logged more minutes on the Whistler Olympic Park biathlon course than anyone other than the Canadians. He said the course suits his style because there's not a lot of elevation change, affording precious little coast time.

He finally might have a smooth ride after clearing so many physical and mental hurdles.

"I have gone through a lot of ups and downs, a lot more than a lot of people," Burke said. "However, it's been an incredible journey."

One that's made him stronger in so many ways.


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