LAKE PLACID - During his two decades competing in biathlon, Tim Burke said he never read qualification criteria. He's one of this country's most decorated biathletes in history, and his focus is always inward.
"I don't get concerned with that at all," the Paul Smith's native said. "The focus is on being the best I can be. And hopefully, if I do that, I meet the standards."
Home here in Lake Placid from the World Cup Biathlon circuit, Burke is in a difficult position a year out from what he hopes will be his fourth and final Olympic Games next year in Pyeonchang, South Korea. After a rough, aborted season, qualifying for next year's events may not be so easy.
Photo — Naj Wikoff
Tim Burke and his wife Andrea Henkel-Burke, of Lake Placid, smile in the Olympic Center’s 1980 Rink, where Henkel-Burke spoke to young cross-country skiers visitng for the Junior National Championships this week.
Late last month, the 35-year-old returned to the Adirondacks following a Facebook announcement that he was pulling out of the current season, just days before his team competed in Pyeongchang for a World Cup stop.
In an interview with the Lake Placid News Tuesday, Burke said he was confident he was "better than ever" by the end of his pre-season training, though things quickly changed once the season started.
"It's a tough pill to swallow, but this is a part of sport," Burke said.
"I simply felt awful right from the start of the race season," Burke wrote on Facebook. "At first I was hopeful that this feeling would just go away but it only ended up getting worse as the season progressed."
Burke describes his struggles as not so much being out of shape but as a fatigue that prevented him from competing at the highest level. Burke added right now biathlon has many competitors around the same skill level. He pointed to how last season roughly 30 different biathletes earned podium finishes on the World Cup circuit. Unable to push himself to his limits, he felt he was doing more harm than good to his body continuing his season this year. It's the first time in 14 years he ended a World Cup season early.
"One of the challenging parts to our sport is you have to be 100-percent healthy to compete in the top level," Burke said. "There are a lot of things you deal with that would not affect a normal person with a normal job, (such as) little viral infections that wouldn't set anyone else back. For us, it means not being able to perform at the top level.
"With that many guys capable of going to the podium," he added, "even if you're a little bit off, someone will take your place."
So Burke is relegated to watching the success his teammates have had this year, triumphs that have included best friend Lowell Bailey's World Championship win in Hochfilzen, Austria. Burke was still competing with the team at that Feb. 17 event and was able to see the end of his friend's grueling race. It topped Burke's silver medal in 2013, which had tied the best U.S. result in the World Championships.
"The best moment for our team this year was Lowell's World Championship," Burke said. "I really do feel like it's a team sport, even though you're out there by yourself on race day. We all feel like we were a part of that medal as well. It's been great to be a part of this successful team. There's been a lot of recognition this year, but this has definitely been building for a decade or more.
"I was standing in the finish area, and I saw him hit all 20 shots and go out in the lead," Burke said of Bailey's win. "I got to watch the last loop and see him come across the finish line. It was incredibly exciting for our team."
Less than a month later, Burke has not worked out in the past two weeks due to the fatigue. He said it's the first time he's taken that much time off in 20 years.
Speaking Tuesday, Burke said he is unsure of what the fatigue-inducing ailment is, but he described his symptoms as feeling more tired than usual.
"I am working closely now with our medical staff to try and figure out what has been going on," Burke said. "Hopefully we will have some answers soon, and I can move on and start planning for the Olympic season."
Burke has had setbacks in the past, including mononucleosis and several surgeries, namely a major one to his hip. But he said the motivation to return for what likely will be his final competitive season and, he hopes, the Olympics keep him confident and motivated.
He hopes to return to training again shortly. May 1 is his deadline for resuming his usual schedule. The national team's Olympic training will begin then.
"All the way to May 1 without much training is a long, long time for me," he added. "In reality, if I can be back May 1, I think I'll be set to go for the season."
Since he's been home and not training, Burke has been able to do things such as attend this week's Junior Cross-Country Skiing National Championships at the Olympic Jumping Complex, where he said he's run into many friends he raced with growing up.
And here at home he has the support of his wife, Andrea Henkel-Burke, a retired German World Championship and Olympic gold medal-winning biathlete. She's doing her part to help her husband get through a tough time and keep his latest, and last, Olympic dream alive.
"It's really nice to have Andrea in my corner," Burke said. "She understands all this stuff. She's been through it all herself. We obviously have a lot in common. And she used her downtime in her career to motivate her."