PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In the first day of the World Cup Biathlon, U.S. skier Susan Dunklee saw her best-ever sprint performance, as spectators, volunteers and international visitors enjoyed a brisk winter day in Aroostook County.
Dunklee of Barton, Vermont, took second place in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint Thursday, finishing in a little more than 20 minutes and just 18 seconds behind Gabriela Soukalova of Czech Republic, the leading biathlete in the women’s competition who took first place. Krystyna Guzik of Poland won third place.
“This is a dream come true,” said Dunklee. “I showed up here on Tuesday morning and I saw the course, and I’m like ‘This is my course.’”
It was her best result ever in the sprint and the second time on a world cup podium.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” Dunklee said.
In the men’s 10-kilometer sprint, Johannes Thingnes Boe of Norway won first place, followed by Anton Shipulin of Russia and Martin Fourcade of France, the current front runner. U.S. skiers Sean Doherty and Lowell Bailey came in 13th and 15th, respectively, out of 92.
Students from around northern Maine, along with spectators, came to the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle to watch the races and cheer for biathletes from around the world.
The World Cup Biathlon, a sport that grew out of northern European and Nordic cultures, draws some 120 million television viewers around the world and 60 million in Europe alone. Daytime races in Maine coincide with prime-time, evening television in Europe.
While the sport has long been dominated by Europeans and Nords, the American biathlon team may end up creating new fans of the sport stateside.
“The U.S. is an up-and-coming team. It’s going to hopefully be one of the bigger teams out there,” said Cody Johnson, a Fort Kent native who is on the U.S. junior biathlon team and who hopes to join the adult team in the future.
“I first saw a world cup in 2004 in Fort Kent, and that really grabbed my interested,” said Johnson, who was out on the trails cheering on American skiers. “I started skiing and fell in love with it and have been doing it ever since.”
For Aroostook County, hosting the eighth stop of the World Cup Biathlon is important both economically and culturally, said Jane Towle, one of the event’s organizers.
“Biathlon is important to the region in many ways,” she said.
The event brings an influx of customers to hotels, shops and eateries while also reminding residents that cross-country skiing in the U.S. started in the region, when the Swedes settled here in the late 1800s.
It also is a largely volunteer effort led by the Nordic Heritage Center, a four season recreational park, with more than 500 people from near and far chipping in with everything from security to food preparation.
“The region’s ability to provide the volunteers speaks highly of The County’s can do mentality,” said Martin Puckett, Presque Isle’s city manager. “It’s also inspirational to see these world class athletes and the dedication it takes to perform at such high levels. I hope to see some of the children watching today become future participants.”