FORT KENT, Maine — Olympic-level athletes training at the two Maine Winter Sports Center venues in northern Maine is nothing new, but Aroostook County could well move up a level in joining handful of other centers around the country as official United States Olympic training sites.

It’s a relationship five years in the making.

“I approached [the Olympic Committee] and this has been an ongoing conversation for five years,” Andy Shepard, president of Maine Winter Sports, said Friday. “It’s taken a long time to get to this point.”

Shepard was in Fort Kent on Friday afternoon with Olympic Committee Director of Training Sites and Community Partnerships Alicia McConnell touring the 10th Mountain biathlon venue and community along with representatives of US Biathlon.

On Thursday the group had visited the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and surrounding area.

McConnell seemed impressed by what she had seen on Friday.

“This area is a great example of how communities support athletes in so many ways,” she said after touring the Jalbert House, the MWSC Fort Kent home for training biathletes, and talking with several of the athletes and coaches. “I came here to see if [an Olympic designation] would be a good fit for Maine Winter Sports and it seems like a good fit.”

Designation as an official U.S. Olympic Training Site would mean 10th Mountain and Nordic Heritage Center could use the Olympic logo in marketing and promotional projects in addition to participating in Olympic Committee-sponsored training, development, planning and educational opportunities.

If approved, both venues would hold the official Olympic designation.

“This is a very big deal,” Shepard said. “If we need help with anything like sports psychology, rehabilitation, training and so on we would have access to a full range of U.S. Olympic resources.”

Currently there are 16 Olympic training sites in the country and only one other Nordic venue, McConnell said.

“When we select a site, we don’t look just at the world class facilities — which you have here,” she said. “We look at community support, available housing, meal plans and educational opportunities for the athletes.”

Both Fort Kent and Presque Isle have housing available for the athletes in addition to meals and training facilities available through the University of Maine at Fort Kent and UMaine Presque Isle.

“We ask a lot from our communities and from our facilities,” McConnell said. “But everyone has the same mission to help the athletes make an Olympic team and become good citizens.”

That spirit of collaboration between the community and athlete is what has guided Maine Winter Sports since it was founded in 1999, according to Shepard.

“Alicia [McConnell] came away from her visit with basically the impression that Maine Winter Sports Center is a prime example in the United States of health and wellness combined with sports,” he said. “That’s great because that is what we are trying to do.”

Since 2000, Fort Kent and Presque Isle have hosted World Cup Biathlon competition, national and international nordic races, Olympic time trials and Paralympic games.

In 2014 Presque Isle is hosting World Junior Cup Biathlon competition Feb. 28 to March 7.

The pride community members have in their training venues is very obvious, McConnell said.

“The communities should be proud,” she said. “It is wonderful when a community knows what is has is special and unique and highlights it.”

McConnell did not give a firm date on when she will make her decision on the site designation, but Shepard is hopeful it will happen sooner rather than later.

“My hope is be able to have U.S. Olympic flag over 10th Mountain and Nordic Heritage Center before Sochi Winter Olympics in March,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic and highly motivated to make that happen.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.