Aroostook on the World Stage

FEATURE-January + February 2011
By Will Bleakley

On February 4, thousands of spectators, millions of viewers, and hundreds of athletes will invade northern Maine for the Biathlon World Cup. Russell Currier, one of Aroostook’s own, has a chance to compete and show the world just how linked biathlon and “The County” have become.

 

For two weeks in early February, Aroostook County will be the most interesting place in the United States to 120 million European television viewers. With just over eleven people per square mile, our country’s northeastern-most county will host the 2011 Biathlon World Cup. While the shooting and skiing sport seems to perplex American audiences, biathlon is the most popular televised winter sport in Europe, which—in addition to the roughly 35,000 spectators and 250 athletes from thirty countries who will attend or participate in the event—will make the World Cup the most viewed sporting event in Maine’s history.

This is not just a one-off event for the 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent and Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, but rather a celebration of a decade-long relationship that was conceived by the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) and embraced and nurtured by the people of Aroostook County. The MWSC arrived with a stated goal of using Nordic skiing and biathlon events to help the area expand economically, provide youth with facilities and equipment that promote a healthy lifestyle, and create a unique cultural touchstone that the region can call its own. With the 2011 World Cup, these goals have come to fruition.

Russell Currier, age 23, and a native of the county, has made the initial World Cup team and has a chance to compete on one of the sport’s largest stages in front of his hometown crowd. Currier is a product of the MWSC, and his personal growth has mirrored that of biathlon in the area. His career has flourished due to hard work, commitment, and a drive to be the best at what he does. This would not have been possible, however, without the support of the local community, the guidance of world-class coaches, and opportunities unique to northern Maine. The same conditions that lined up to create the 2011 World Cup are the forces that have made Currier’s career, and his Olympic aspirations, possible.

When he’s not traveling, Currier lives with his parents at the top of a series of rolling hills in Stockholm, a small town between Fort Kent and Presque Isle—the two major centers in Aroostook. Their house, like most in the region, is characterized by its view of vast woodlands, six months of snow cover every year, and the selection of hunting rifles leaning against the front door.

Currier doesn’t have the build or demeanor one expects of a world-class biathlete. He is short, reserved, and when not on skis, lacks evidence of his inner competitive nature. When he’s gliding over woodland trails with a rifle on his back, and hitting targets the size of a silver dollar from fifty meters away, however, he’s one of the most feared competitors in the United States.

Until age eight, little about Currier suggested he was built for skiing. “He was just like any other kid, bumping along in grade school, struggling personality-wise, kind of withdrawn,” Carl Theriault, a volunteer biathlon event announcer and owner of Valley Auto in Fort Kent says. “He was a bit overweight, kind of an unathletic kid. Not the skier you see today.” An initiative called Healthy Hometowns, a product of the MWSC, came to Currier’s school, Stockholm Elementary School, and offered nearly free rental skis to the students, and Currier took advantage. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford skiing without that program,” he says.

Currier found his niche on skis—his place in a community that, due to its size, had few healthy active outlets for schoolchildren. “Who knows where Russell would have ended up had he not had this opportunity knocking at his school door? This has given him a chance to totally change his view of the world,” Theriault says.

Currier began skiing to school every day, up and down the snow-covered hills around his home. He found that skiing became an unavoidable activity. “Aside from recess, gym class, and going to and from school, they would even occasionally just let us go out and ski instead of having class. We’d all go do a loop on the trail behind middle school. It was right there, so it just grew on me I guess,” Currier says.

Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the MWSC, once believed—like many people from southern Maine—that he had Aroostook County figured out: “I imagined it was a rural wasteland. That there was economic devastation and it was going to be depressing.” Instead, he came away from his first visit amazed at the beauty, pride, and sense of community that imbue Aroostook. “It’s a remarkable part of the state that’s not getting the attention it should,” Shepard says. The area has had its struggles—jobs are scarce and some of its rustic charm has given way to fast-food restaurants and strip malls. As a result, many children lack healthy guidance. In an effort to address these issues, Shepard, with ongoing support from the Libra Foundation, started the MWSC in 1999 as a way to utilize the county’s natural advantages—its low population density, the most consistent snowfall outside the Rocky Mountains, and a hard-working community—to promote biathlon and Nordic skiing. Shepard saw the potential in pairing children to the sport as a strategy for fixing some of the county’s problems and fostering a lasting connection with biathlon.

The Stockholm Elementary School was the first Healthy Hometowns initiative. The idea, according to Shepard, is “to get kids off the couch, away from the computer, and into a healthy, active outdoor lifestyle.” The program targets all kids between eight and twelve years old and provides them with access to more than 2,500 sets of skis for just $45 a year, as well as free access to Nordic trails. “Skiing is an elite sport; the beauty of this program is, now it’s not,” Theriault says. “All of a sudden, a kid has something he wants to do at 2:30 in the afternoon. Instead of hanging out behind the school smoking or going home and playing video games, he wants to go skiing.”

Community volunteers like Carl Soderberg, a construction worker from Caribou, help keep the sport accessible. Soderberg has built eight kilometers of Nordic trails behind Caribou High School, which serves every child from Caribou, Stockholm, and New Sweden. Lights illuminate the trails until nine every night, and hordes of children and their families use them for free. “I helped build these trails so that people who may not necessarily be outgoing, or who are hesitant and might not have tried skiing, can now do it easily,” Soderberg says.

Currier established himself as a top Nordic skier during middle school and high school, but then he was presented with the opportunity to move into biathlon. “The U.S. Biathlon, the actual United States Olympic Committee, offered a good program for me and said ‘We’ll invite you to these camps, and you can work with the national team coaches,’” Currier says. “It was more convenient, and they were just more willing to work with me. I found a lot more support in it.”

His first big race came in 2002, when he entered the Junior National Championships as a fourteen-year-old. He had been working on the sport for less than a year with national coaches, but the race was occurring in Fort Kent, just thirty miles from home. He was only in eighth grade at the time, but his entire school took the day off to watch him race. Much of the area was in attendance, and a few classmates stood in the stands with “I ? Russell” painted on their chests.

With the community watching, Currier came in first place. “I can remember being so thrilled for the whole two weeks after. I think that race really spurred my career,” Currier says, still giddy with the joy he felt that day. “That was my first real race, and my first year getting into it. It was all pretty foreign to me.” With the support of a community, convenient access to training facilities, and a world-class coaching staff, Currier took full advantage of the opportunity.

Ever since the 2004 World Cup in Fort Kent helped inspire Currier, his career has taken off. “When I  saw all those high-caliber biathletes that you only hear about or see on television skiing right here on my homecourse in Fort Kent, that was something else,” Currier says. “That really gives you the idea that being competitive at that level isn’t necessarily out of reach at all.”

Soon Currier was training at the MWSC’s Jalbert Youth Program with some of the top biathletes in the United States. He worked alongside Tim Burke, the only American biathlete to be ranked number one in the world, and the nation’s best hope for a podium finish at the World Cup. “I’ve known Tim since well before he was even scoring World Cup points,” Currier says. “It’s great to witness his progression and to see him prove that, even from over here, where biathlon’s almost unheard of, you can have that kind of success.”

Currier has been training nonstop and year-round, with his eyes set on the 2011 World Cup. He’s made past World Cup events in South Korea and Antholz, Italy, but missed the Olympics in 2010. “He’s our local favorite, and he has the skill and potential,” says Nancy Thibodeau, event director for the 10th Mountain Ski Center.  Currier has had a good year, and is possibly the team’s fastest skier, but he needs to work on his shooting. “I’m easily within striking distance of that last spot on the U.S. team,” Currier says. “I just have to be on ball, mentally.” Theriault is optimistic. “The ones that make it to the top, they start out as fast skiers, then become great shooters. Russell is one of those guys. He’s hungry though. He just has to refine his shooting. And he will.”

Methodical precision shooting combined with up to 20 kilometers of competitive Nordic skiing make the biathlon an ideal spectator sport. This active engagement with the audience, the already significant European fan base, and a lack of licensed biathlon centers in the United States made the sport a compelling choice for the MWSC to center itself around. “The U.S. Biathlon Association needed a place to develop athletes, and the county needed a new economic engine. Because of the people, and snowfall, it made sense to bring it to northern Maine,” Shepard says. Large national and international events bring thousands of outsiders to stimulate the local economy, while they also captivate the Aroostook audience. Biathlon combines two of the area’s great pastimes, skiing and hunting, and it has a distinct European flavor that residents of New Sweden and Stockholm with Scandinavian roots, can relate to. “There’s a reason it’s number one,” according to Max Saenger, a consultant to the World Cup and Olympic games, and whose wife was Currier’s middle school coach. “There’s great suspense right to the end, and people want to try it when they see it. Kids see biathlon and see Tim Burke wearing the yellow jersey, it’s unbelievable. That’ll translate into them getting excited about the sport.”

During the 2004 World Cup, schools in the area closed down, and groups of children showed up to the events with flags and signs supporting athletes hailing from all around the world. “It was clearly the darling World Cup of that 2004 season, and athletes still talk about how it’s one of the best events they’ve ever been to,” according to Saenger. “The difference here was the way people in Aroostook county host people. They rolled out the red carpet like the athletes had never felt before. It was heartfelt, warm hosting.”

After the World Cup, Aroostook cemented its reputation as the American capital of biathlon, which strengthened the region’s competitive youth program. The best biathletes in the country, including Tim Burke, now spend their time training at the MWSC for free in exchange for mentoring younger students. The Jalbert Youth Program, which nurtured Currier, was developed with generous funding from Phyllis Jalbert, a local benefactor inspired by the World Cup. Yet according to Theriault, it’s the “intangibles” that have made the biggest impact on the area. “I think it helps with people wanting to stay in Fort Kent and settle a family. I’ve always seen it as a great recruiting tool for people thinking this is a more progressive community. And I think when you start thinking of yourself that way, you start acting that way too.”

The 2011 World Cup is expected to bring up to $10 million to the region during the two weeks of the event. Shepard hopes that, after this year, northern Maine will become a permanent stop on the World Cup circuit.

In late October, construction workers at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle are busy putting the targets in place that will be used during the World Cup. Two men lie on the ground, pretending to hold rifles in their hands, speaking softly to one another in Bavarian. Saenger weaves around construction equipment to ask, for the fourth time, if distances have been measured correctly. He knows the stakes for this World Cup, and what it means to Shepard, the county, and Russell Currier.

In 2004, Shepard was focused on getting people to recognize the potential of Aroostook County as a biathlon center. In 2011, he is hoping to open 120 million European eyes to the rest of the county, pique their interest, and then sustain it. “Europeans love the outdoor activities that Aroostook has in abundance,” Shepard says. With additional support from the Libra Foundation, he’s developed a website and an aggressive marketing campaign hoping to capture their interest and turn the county into a four-season tourist destination.

Meanwhile, Currier is focused on competing, but he too sees the World Cup as a springboard to a more ambitious goal—an Olympic medal. Even if he doesn’t reach his full potential, being a part of the sport has created experiences he wouldn’t otherwise have had: singing “Born in the U.S.A” at a karaoke bar in South Korea, drinking beers with celebrity German biathletes, and skiing and shooting his way through Italy. Just as Shepard hopes to bring the world to Aroostook, Currier is bringing Aroostook to the world, and enjoying the ride along the way.

For a full schedule of events please visit discovernorthernmaine.com

 

 

 

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