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Ski Lines: Biathlon becoming big deal in Lake Placid

Ski Lines: Biathlon becoming big deal in Lake Placid

Phil Johnson's latest look at the winter outdoors scene
Ski Lines: Biathlon becoming big deal in Lake Placid
Andrea Henkel Burke
Photographer: Phil Johnson

Andrea Henkel Burke was just 2 years old when Lake Placid hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics and her now hometown became forever linked with The Games.

More than just about any of her neighbors, however, she understands “The Thrill of Victory.” 

The diminutive Henkel Burke, who stands at 5-foot-2, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a former overall world champion in the biathlon, which combines cross country ski racing and shooting targets. Competing for her native Germany, she won individual gold in the 15k race and in the relay in 2002 at Salt Lake City, then the season-long World Cup title in 2006-07. In an international competition career that stretched from 1998 through 2014, she won 46 World Cup events and had top-three podium finishes 106 times. 

Still, she can walk down the street in Lake Placid unrecognized. Well almost.

“I was shopping at the local grocery one day when an excited young couple came up to me and asked, ‘Are you Andrea Henkel?’ ”

It turned out that the couple were visiting from Germany where Henkel Burke is still a well-known national figure. It is not the only time visitors have recognized her.

“One time, a van pulled up when I was walking in town. They were German tourists. They recognized me and stopped to talk,” she said.

Henkel Burke is in Lake Placid with husband Tim Burke, who grew up in nearby Paul Smiths and competed for the United States in biathlon for 14 years. Burke, along with longtime friend and teammate Lowell Bailey from Lake Placid, won medals in world championship competition for the U.S. But neither won Olympic medals.

Biathlon is incredibly demanding. Competitors must ski as fast as they can over distances up to as much as 30 kilometers depending on the event with periodic stops to shoot multiple rounds at targets no bigger than the size of a quarter. Miss a target, and either time is added to your score, or a penalty loop is tacked on to the skiing. 

The competition is dramatic, and popular. It is a fan favorite on television throughout Europe, and top competitors like Henkel Burke become celebrities.

It is different here. Biathlon is only ski discipline where the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal. 

That could change soon. 

Tim Burke and Bailey are in Lake Placid working with the Biathlon Federation to coach current athletes and develop new talent for the sport. Recent international race results show promise. Last week, Susan Dunklee from Barton, Vermont, won a silver medal in the 7.5 kilometer sprint event at the Biathlon World Championships in Italy. She is the only U.S. woman ever to win an individual medal in the world championships and with perfect shooting like last week, Olympic success is possible. 

Dunklee was an an All-American cross country skier at Dartmouth College and began competing internationally in biathlon in 2011. Her dad, Stan Dunklee, was a two-time Olympic cross country skier and competed at Lake Placid in 1980. That’s a pretty solid pedigree. 

Henkel Burke’s path was different. Her older sister Manuela was an accomplished cross country skier, coming up under the former East German sports system.  

“She had a a ski pole over her bed with all of her medals hanging down,” Henkel Burke said. I wanted that, too.”

Then, just after she started to become serious about competing, the Berlin Wall between the two Germanys came down, and women’s involvement in international biathlon competition began. 

“All the girl cross country racers at my school became biathletes.” she said.

“I had to fight hard for my spot on the team. Even after I had won at the Olympics, I still had to compete for a starting spot in races.”

It was never enough just to compete, however. Henkel Burke was always aiming for high performance. 

“I am very competitive," Henkel Burke said. "My mantra was, ‘I don’t ever want to look back and say I didn’t try my hardest.’ ”

Henkel Burke now lives near the Olympic cross country tracks at Mt. VanHoevenberg. She has a personal training practice that, with the combination of a home gym and the internet, develops individual programs for clients from around the country. While she said she rarely shoots anymore, she cross country skis, snowshoes and hikes regularly. She also helps coach biathlon for the New York Ski Education Foundation. 

“Lake Placid is perfect for me,” she said. “I like to be outdoors. And I like to be active.”

Soon, she will be able to enjoy the new $78 million Nordic training facility now being built at the venue near her home. A new biathlon stadium is part of the upgrade. Overall, New York State has allocated $240 million to refresh and support the 1980 Olympic sites in time for the World University Games in early 2023.

In the meantime, Henkel Burke has joined with two-time Alpine ski medalist medalist Andrew Weibrecht to host the “Ski with an Olympian” program, sponsored by the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid. For more information, check andrea-burke.com or mirrorlakeinn.com.

CRAIG’S FLAG

The 40th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Olympics is bringing to life many stories from the games. Retired Schenectady insurance executive Larry Feldman recalled a favorite told him by the late Ed Lewi, who was seated next to U.S. hockey coach coach Herb Brooks after the team beat Finland for the gold medal. 

In the triumph moment at the end of the game, someone handed goalie Jim Craig an American flag. Brooks reached out to grab the flag from Craig when Lewi, the longtime Capital District public relations executive reached in and told Brooks, “Let him go.”

The classic photo of Craig draped in the flag is one of the enduring images of the classic event. 

LAPLAND LADIES LOVE TO SKI

Lapland Lake cross country center is sponsoring another ladies-only cross country session Saturday, Feb. 29 at the area in Benson. The program runs from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and this time, will focus on the skate ski technique. The cost is $60 and includes a facilities us pass, instruction, and lunch. For more information and to register, check www.laplandlake.com

CENTURY OF SKI FILMS CELEBRATED

What is believed to be the first ski film ever, The Wonder of Ski, was released in 1920.

It starred Hannes Schneider, who became famous as head of the Ski School in St. Anton, Austria. His arrival in the USA in 1938 is still celebrated in the North Conway, New Hampshire, where the 24th annual Meister Cup will take place March 14.

It is a fun event for skiers of all ages and abilities. For more information, check www.Meistercup.org.

Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].

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