Rural Maine County Hosts Biathlon World Cup

Thousands of biathlon competitors and fans have gathered in rural Aroostook County in Maine for the sport's World Cup. More than 10 years ago, Aroostook, traditionally a hub for potato farming and logging, hatched a plan to reverse the stagnant wage growth and high unemployment that plague so many sparsely populated areas. The county already drew large numbers of snowmobilers to its network of well-groomed trails. So Aroostook set out to build on that base — by capitalizing on its long history of superb cross-country skiing and transforming itself into one of the world's premier Nordic sports destinations.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

This weekend, millions of sports fans across Europe will be fixated on a rural, sparsely populated stretch of northern Maine. Aroostook County is hosting two biathlon World Cup events. Biathlon is wildly popular in Europe; here in America, not so much.

That is starting to change, though, as Jay Field reports from Maine Public Radio.

JAY FIELD: So some people listening might not know what biathlon is. Basically, it combines two sports near and dear to citizens in rural states that get a ton of snow: cross-country skiing and hunting - though in biathlon, no one is shooting at deer or grouse.

(Soundbite of rifle fire)

Mr. PER NILSSON (Coach, U.S. National Team): With these 22-caliber rifles, they are quite sensitive - for the wind.

FIELD: Per Nilsson coaches the U.S. National Team. He's watching his athletes take target practice at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, Maine.

In biathlon, skiers race around a cross-country track at breakneck speed...

(Soundbite of crunching snow)

FIELD: ...up hills, around sharp bends, down corkscrews, and into the shooting range.

Mr. NILSSON: Then you come in with a heart rate about 180. And in 30 seconds you should be down to the mat, take off the rifle, take your five shots, rifle on and then away.

FIELD: As you probably figured out, Nilsson isnt American. He's from Sweden, where kids grow up idolizing biathletes the way youth here look up to Kobe or LeBron. Nilsson was recruited to put U.S. biathlon on the map - in part, by working with promising U.S. athletes like Sara Studebaker.

Ms. SARA STUDEBAKER (Biathlete): The Nordic culture in Europe and in Scandinavia, especially, is huge. And we don't have that as much here. But I think it's definitely growing in popularity.

FIELD: An estimated 130 million Europeans are expected to tune in live to the races on five broadcast networks. Here in the U.S., you can watch a live video stream of the events on the Web. Organizers were planning for more than 35,000 spectators to travel to northern Maine to watch the competition.

(Soundbite of a crowd and beeps)

FIELD: Thousands of screaming fans rang cowbells in the cold at the first set of races. They got a special treat when Sara Studebaker, who grew up cross-country skiing in Boise, Idaho, came in 14th in the women's sprint. Thats the best finish for an American woman in seven years.

(Soundbite of cheering and cowbells)

FIELD: Back in 1999, the nonprofit Maine Winter Sports Center set out to make Aroostook a leading site for Nordic sports.

(Soundbite of cheering)

FIELD: The County, as locals call it, has a rolling landscape filled with potato farms and increasingly, wind turbines. In the winter, snowmobiling has traditionally been the major economic engine. But Nordic sports are making an impact. Aroostook now has two world-class biathlon venues, and skiing programs for adults and kids are now run in nearly 100 communities across Maine.

Mr. JACOB TOLLE (Student): It's definitely a lot bigger than I expected it to be.

FIELD: Jacob Tolle(ph), a high school junior, is one of hundreds of kids of all ages who took field trips to watch the races. Teachers in Aroostook County have incorporated the biathlon into their curriculum.

Mr. TOLLE: I just can't imagine all the hard work and everything they put in to actually get to this level.

FIELD: Tolle has at least some idea. He competes in both Nordic and Alpine events on his high school ski team. Biathlon may not overtake the NBA or NFL anytime soon. But as more people like Tolle stay with the sport, it may mean the U.S. will eventually win a World Cup race.

For NPR News, Im Jay Field.

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