L-L- Bean

Biathlon: a Maine event

The World Cup biathlon tour that makes the first of its two American stops Friday in northern Maine shines the spotlight on the sport that -- with its combination of skiing and shooting -- is huge in Europe.  They'll be way more interested in Germany in biathlon in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, Maine, than in that Super Bowl thing in Dallas. Meanwhile, for those of us here in the States, if you can tear yourselves away long enough from the Packers and Steelers to think about life beyond football -- biathlon and Maine make for an amazing story.

Well, to be precise -- winter sports, in this instance meaning biathlon and cross-country skiing, and Maine.

Did you know, for instance, that northern Maine and southern Maine might as well be separate states -- in something of the way that northern and southern California are the same state but different states of mind?

Portland is a real city. It's in southern Maine.

Northern Maine is rural. Very. All of 73,000 people live in Maine's northernmost county, Aroostook, spread out over 6,672 square miles. That's 11 people per square mile. They grow broccoli, potatoes and hay there.

If that sounds charming, there's this: The shoe factories and the woolen mills are almost all gone now, and the paper mills have fallen on hard times. That has meant high unemployment. At the same time, Maine ranks near the top of the charts nationally in the incidence of childhood smoking, obesity, type II diabetes and asthma.

What to do?

"I remember," Russell Currier was saying the other day on the telephone, "in fifth or sixth grade, when one of the coaches showed up at our school and handed out skis to us. At the time, I thought they were the best skis available. They practically were compared to what we were using."

This was the Stockholm Elementary School in Stockholm, Maine. There were 32 kids in the school, kindergarten through eighth grade, he said.

"To be able to rent a decent pair of skis for $20 a season was what we needed," Russell, who is now 23, said. "Basically, it was the cool thing to go ski during recess and gym class, and even before school. That was where I started to realize I enjoyed cross-country skiing."

In a nutshell, that is the vision of the Maine Winter Sports Center.

The center's mission is to develop a sustainable model for Maine's rural communities -- through skiing. That means economic development in places like Aroostook County. That means the development, physical and academic, of the young people there.

"It's about trying to create a new identity -- getting to see themselves as healthy risk-takers," Andy Shepard, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Winter Sports Center, said.

"What we want to do is get to these kids before they challenge their parents on the clothes they wear," Shepard, who used to work at L.L. Bean and who knows about these things, said. "As soon as a child starts asserting his or her own sartorial view of things, we've lost them. They stop listening.

"But if we get them when they're younger -- when they're 8, 9, 10 years old -- we can help them. We can create this healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle."

The center was founded in 1999, backed from the start by what's called the LIbra Foundation, a Portland-based organization that aims to promote projects in and for Maine.

"We're not going to get a Ford Motor Co. plant in [northern] Maine," Owen Wells, the foundation's president and CEO said. "We ought to forget about that.

"But we think we can do something about health and obesity and our children."

The attributes central to success as an élite athlete -- commitment, discipline, responsibility -- are at the core of the center's mission as well. Thus the center has built two world-class venues -- one in Presque Isle, the other in Fort Kent.

Several members of the U.S. national team in recent years have trained in Maine.

Among them: Russell Currier.

Russell's mom, Deborah, works in the office of a local oil company. His dad, Christopher, does lawn care in the summers and snow removal in the winters. His older sister, Lauren, is a nurse.

Russell won't be competing at the Maine World Cup stops before the locals. He has made World Cup starts before and while his skiing is solid, his shooting -- as he admits -- still needs work.

"A setback," he said. But it's okay. And here's why.

"Sometimes you make the team and sometimes you don't," he said. "Those are the rules," and that's uncommon maturity for 23.

Then again, that's precisely the kind of thing Andy Shepard was hoping for when this whole thing got started.

"We see sports as a means to an end," Shepard said. "Responsibility, accountability, discipline, the pursuit of excellence -- all these attributes of success in sports are also critical to success in life.

"When [Russell] first saw himself excelling as a biathlete, as a cross-country skier, he also started seeing himself as someone who could excel in anything. For me that is what it is all about," Shepard said.

That began to happen, he said, when Currier was a teen-ager: "In Russell's freshman year of high school," at Caribou High, 15 or so minutes north of Presque Isle, "he made the honor roll. He underlined his name and cut it out of the newspaper," the Aroostook Republican," and mailed it to me.

"That," he said, "is powerful stuff."