By Chris Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - The Christmas and New Year holidays offered little rest for Tim Burke as he prepared for his role as the first American biathlete to wear the bib of World Cup leader.
With the Vancouver Winter Olympics only weeks away, Burke and his team mates knew there was no let-up from training.
"Quite a bit of high-level training goes on in this two-week break," said the team's Swedish coach Per Nilsson, one of several overseas experts brought in to boost American prospects in a sport traditionally dominated by Germany, Norway and Russia.
Burke was spending the holidays working to improve his skiing and shooting on the trails and target range being used for this weekend's World Cup events in Oberhof, Germany.
"My ski speed has been able to keep me in every race so far this year, but I know come February in Vancouver I'm going to have to be near perfect," he told Reuters by telephone.
Norway's Ole Einar Bjorndalen, who won his 91st World Cup event last month, missed the Swedish and Slovenian races after a virus.
Bjorndalen, who was overall champion for the past two years, is hoping to add to his Olympic haul of five gold medals, three silvers and a bronze in Vancouver, which comes soon after his 36th birthday.
The United States has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon and hopes are inevitably focusing on Burke after his impressive rise from last season, when he finished 25th overall in the World Cup.
"This has been my first year in a few years that I got it right," said Burke, who turns 28 nine days before the Olympics start on February 12.
Things have not gone so well for Burke in previous seasons. Last year, he battled fatigue and illness while competing and reached his full strength only toward the second half of the four-month, 10-event season.
Two years ago he over-trained in the off-season and needed the first half of the season to rest and recover, he said.
He also suffered a hip injury early in his career but said mental attitude played as much of a part in the sport as physical fitness.
"Your mental side adapts to this sport over time and that's why you see some older athletes still competing at the top level into their late 30s," he said.
"I didn't do anything special this year, and I'm not especially nervous that I was in too-good form. We are trying to peak for Vancouver."
Burke, who leads Frenchman Simon Fourcade by 253 points to 246 going into the weekend, has improved his shooting this year and was able to finish sixth in the 12.5-km pursuit at Pokljuka after hitting 17 of the 20 targets. Biathlon punishes imperfect shooting with a 150-meter penalty loop for every missed target.
"After every single race you can say 'what if', even if you hit all your targets, and it can drive you crazy," said Burke.
"Last season I shot about 78 percent. In Pokljuka I shot about 88 percent."
Greater spending on biathlon and the signing of a corporate sponsor have helped the American team to concentrate on their sport and allowed Burke to live in Europe full-time.
"I can live in my own apartment, so it's time I spend out of a hotel room, cooking my own food, washing my own laundry," he said.
Nilsson said Burke's self-confidence was now the most important aspect of his development and he had no doubts about his fitness, recalling a five-hour training run up a Swedish mountain that Burke, team mate Lowell Bailey and he did in August.
"We set out on what was supposed to be a three-hour run across open tundra to the base of a mountain," Burke said. "Most of the other people going up were in full mountaineering gear; we were wearing light rain jackets and running shoes."
Nilsson said he was sore for a week after the run.
"That's the difference between me and a professional athlete. It was an easy day for them. But it was important not to let them see me suffer and I pretended I was okay. But really, my legs hurt." (Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)