Photo Courtesy: biathlon.teamusa.org/NordicFocus - Russell Currier, a biathlete from rural Maine, credits the Maine Winter Sports Center with getting him into the sport of biathlon.
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," said Andy Shepard, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Winter Sports Center.