Tim Burke's World Cup triumphs have the U.S. biathlon team feeling especially good about the Vancouver Games and America's chances of finally grabbing an Olympic medal in Europe's most popular winter sport.
In a teleconference Tuesday introducing the five-member men's team and the four-member women's squad, Burke's teammates said his emergence as an elite biathlete has boosted their confidence and reduced the pressure they feel for a biathlon breakthrough.
Burke has the yellow bib as the overall World Cup leader heading into the circuit's next stop in Ruhpolding, Germany. He said his successes have made his goal of winning a medal in at least one of his five races in Whistler all the more realistic.
Jeremy Teela, of Heber City, Utah, who will be making his third trip to the Olympics, said Burke's rousing success gives the Americans a newfound swagger and also serves as a pressure valve.
"It feels a lot different going to the stadium knowing that your teammate's wearing the yellow bib. That definitely brings some confidence," Teela said. "If there was any pressure to do well for the U.S. team, someone like Tim there backing me up kind of lets me shoot faster, I can be more aggressive in the shooting and that confidence, it can be a little bit higher when I do that.
"Sometimes when I'm hesitant on the shooting range, it doesn't go as well. So, you know, seeing Tim's results and having a ... five-man team like this definitely helps relieve some of the pressure that one could feel from the [U.S. Biathlon Association] or the USOC or even from yourself."
Burke has long made a medal at Vancouver a top goal.
"I definitely feel it's more of a realistic goal now having three podium finishes so far this year," Burke said. "But this is biathlon, anything can happen. Somebody can win one day and be down in the bottom 50 the next day so I think there are a lot of athletes who have a chance at a podium in Vancouver."
Indeed, Jay Hakkinen, of Kasilof, Alaska, kicked off the teleconference from Ruhpolding by declaring: "I plan to be the first one" to scale the Olympic biathlon podium for the U.S. Hakkinen is going to his fourth Olympics and is the elder statesmen of the most talented men's team the United States has ever sent to the Games.
He came excruciatingly close to a medal at Cesana, Italy, in 2006 when a split bullet that hit the target but failed to drop cost him the bronze in the 10-kilometer race.
Despite the friendly competition, Hakkinen said Burke's breakthrough season is inspiring.
"Having Tim, it is a huge confidence boost for all of us and it makes us really happy about the relay chances as well," Hakkinen said. "And I also would have to credit Jeremy, as well, with last year getting the [World Cup] podium finish, that was a big breakthrough.
"And Tim, it's unbelievable," Hakkinen added. "The only thing he hasn't done yet is won a race and he's not leaving much for the rest of us to do. ... You put the motivation aside, it's what this program deserves."
Rounding out the men's team are Lowell Bailey, of Lake Placid, N.Y., who also went to Torino, and Wynn Roberts, a 21-year-old from Battle Lake, Minn.
If all goes according to plan, Roberts will be a spectator at Whistler Olympic Park.
"Well, it means a lot to me to be the No. 5 person," he said. "Everyone wants to start in a race, but I would hope that these guys have great races and excellent health and there isn't a need for me."
Max Cobb, executive director of the U.S. Biathlon Association, said the Americans have benefited from increased funding from the USOC, which quadrupled its support to about $1 million per year after Torino, which makes up approximately half of the program's budget.
The women's team, consists of Haley Johnson, of Lake Placid, N.Y.; Sara Studebaker, of Boise, Idaho; Lanny Barnes, of Durango, Colo.; and Laura Spector, of Lennox, Mass.
Barnes is the only one with Olympic experience, having competed four years ago in Italy.