Burke wins historic medal for U.S.

OSTERSUND, Sweden -- It's been a historic week for Tim Burke and the U.S. biathlon team.

Burke became the first American to medal at the sprint distance Saturday, two days after he matched the best U.S. finish in any biathlon event with a silver in the 20-kilometer. It's the first time the Americans have been on the biathlon podium twice in one week.

"It helps my confidence," said Burke, who was third in the 10-kilometer race behind Norwegians Ole Einar Bjorndalen and Emil Hegle Svendsen. "I have confirmation my training this year went well. I know I can compete with guys in any of the racing styles, and that does a lot more than any training can do."

Burke was a perfect 10 for 10 shooting and finished in 24:07.3, 37 seconds behind Bjorndalen, the five-time Olympic gold medalist.

On Thursday, the 27-year-old from Lake Placid, N.Y., tied for the best finish ever by a U.S. biathlete by placing second to Svendsen in the season-opening 20K race.

"It's a very, very big deal for us," said Max Cobb, U.S. Biathlon's executive director. "It's just so much fun to see this Olympic season begin this way. Biathlon is not a well-known sport in the United States, and this is just the perfect way for biathlon to make its national debut."

In the women's 7.5K, Tora Berger of Norway won in 21:21.5, hitting every target in strong wind. Olga Medvedtseva was second, 6.8 seconds behind.

Biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship, is wildly popular in Europe, where it is the top-rated winter sport on television. Not surprisingly, it's dominated by Europeans, particularly the Norwegians, Germans and Russians.

The Americans have been trying to crash the party for years, with little success.

Before last season, they'd won a grand total of four medals -- at any distance -- at World Cups and the world championships.

But U.S. Biathlon overhauled its program after the Turin Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee quadrupled the federation's funding from $250,000 a year to $1 million, and sponsor TD Bank pitched in, too.

That allowed the Americans to hire Swedish coach Per Nilsson, along with shooting coach Armin Auchentaller and high-performance director Bernd Eisenbichler.

"Four years ago I thought I was training hard. And then I met Per," said Burke, who said Nilsson has increased not only the volume of training but the intensity. "The entire staff has given me everything I need to compete with the best in world."

The results are clear, with three medals in a nine-month span.

Jeremy Teela's bronze at a World Cup event in March ended a 17-year U.S. medal drought. The other top two American men have also had top-15 finishes.

"It's changed a lot over the last few years," Burke said. "For the people who follow biathlon [the recent success] is not a huge surprise. It was a matter of time before we broke through."

Burke and Teela's success could be the start of what U.S. Biathlon hopes is a watershed season. Winter sports, particularly the smaller ones, get more attention in an Olympic year, and Burke's results are sure to inspire the rest of the U.S. team.

"I'm not superhuman. They know they can beat me on days, and for sure the podium is possible for the rest of the guys," Burke said.

The Americans have never won an Olympic medal -- haven't even come close. Their best finish was a sixth in the relay event, and that was back in 1972.

But as Burke showed in a matter of three days, anything is possible.

"It has been a two-decade goal of ours to do this," Cobb said. "For Americans in biathlon to win a medal at the Olympics, in Europe's favorite winter sport, maybe it's not quite the Miracle on Ice of 1980, but it's darn close."