Just a year ago, Presque Isle was gearing up to welcome athletes and spectators from around the world. The Nordic Heritage Center was in the world spotlight Feb. 11-14 as host for the eighth of nine stops on the 2015-16 International Biathlon Union World Cup tour.
The World Cup is not coming to Aroostook County this season, but The County’s own world-class biathlete is maintaining a presence on the 2016-17 World Cup circuit in Europe.
Russell Currier, 29, returned home to Stockholm, Maine, for the holiday after a month of skiing in Norway, Sweden, Slovenia and the Czech Republic as a member of the U.S. biathlon team.
Biathletes compete on two levels during a tour: the IBU Cup and the World Cup. Those who do well in IBU competition are selected for World Cup races.
Currier had several World Cup starts in December, and he learned after arriving home that he had made the World Cup team for races to be held in Oberhof, Germany, in January.
“I was pretty excited,” he said recently on the phone from Stockholm. “Competition is super stiff.”
Combining cross-country skiing and marksmanship, biathlon consists of four types of races: relay, sprint, pursuit and mass start, each with intervals on the shooting range. Skiers shoot at five targets from prone and standing positions between stints on the racecourse. They can lose precious time in making the transitions.
Known for his lightning speed as a skier, Currier has worked this season to reduce his time on the shooting range.
“Shooting well and skiing fast aren’t enough any more,” he wrote on his blog. “You have to do both of those and not waste any time doing them.”
While thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers worldwide watch Currier and his fellow biathletes live, biathlon fans in the U.S. are watching online.
Biathlon is the most televised winter sport in Europe, but in the U.S., biathlon fans are glued to their computers.
“It is good fortune that we can tune in so easily at biathlonworld.com,” said Caribou native Catherine Brewer, who teaches secondary English in Ashland and watches biathlon on the weekends. “Did I mention the phenomenal broadcaster who makes the race fun and knows all the stats? It could be a classroom lesson in itself.”
Brewer calls herself “an obnoxious fan” and would like to know who else watches World Cup on the weekends.
“I’d know who I could correspond with at 5:15 a.m. weekend mornings,” she said.
She could contact Deb and Chris Currier in Stockholm, who have their computer linked to the television to watch their son compete. While they seldom actually see him, they mark his progress electronically both on a smartphone and TV.
“If we don’t see him, we get live results,” said Deb Currier.
Skiers wear an electronic ankle bracelet that records when they pass designated checkpoints on the racecourse.
“We get the results first on the phone,” she said, so they realize when they are watching the televised races, “we might be cheering him on when he has already finished the race.” When he shoots, they see only his name next to five black circles representing the targets. Those he hits turn white on the screen, and flashing red signifies a miss.
During a pursuit race in the Czech Republic, all five targets flashed red.
“Everything was in place,” Russell Currier recalled of a fatal mishap on an icy turn. “The race plan was memorized, all that was left was to execute it. What I didn’t expect was the iced-over corner being more lethal than I remembered. Loop one and I’m down. One second you’re riding a safe draft and the next you’re grinding your rifle into the snow as you crash into the banner. … When I set up for prone I couldn’t see through my sights.”
After “about three aggressive attempts” to clear the snow from his rifle, he was able to see, but the fall had jarred the sights enough to cause him to miss all five shots.
It was definitely a low point, but racing at Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic also brought a high.
“It was super exciting,” Currier said, describing the din of the cheering crowds pressing close to the racecourses. “It’s a young venue, not a staple on the itinerary. The stadium holds 20,000, and there were 10,000 packed on the loop.”
Though the numbers of spectators were greater, the excitement in the Czech Republic was reminiscent of the Biathlon World Cup competition in Presque Isle last February.
“We are always in the running” to host another World Cup event, said Jane Towle of Presque Isle, event director for Biathlon 8 last year. “We submit a bid every year and hope [to be chosen] every three or four years.”
Venues are chosen two years in advance.
Towle said the selection process is intensely political, with Europeans preferring to keep biathlon on their soil. European sponsors make huge investments in televising the sport, as evidenced by the amount of the German beer Erdinger consumed in Aroostook County during and after Biathlon 8.
“Leadership has been entrenched for decades,” she said comparing it to the NFL and NBA in the United States.
“Europeans don’t mind coming to North America,” she said, but they require at least two host venues to justify the trip.
The Nordic Heritage Center is the only U.S. venue qualified to host the Biathlon World Cup. Salt Lake City is attempting to win certification. Canmore in Alberta, Canada, was the other North American stop for the 2015-16 World Cup tour.
This year’s tour resumes Jan. 2 in Oberhof, Germany, and concludes in March in Oslo, Norway, after stops in Italy, Austria and Korea.
“The new year could be a grand one,” Currier said. “It could also be another series of messes. That’s just how it works.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.