Ask a Mainer what a “Mainer” is, and you’re sure to get an earful. The rules for establishing a proper Maine pedigree are somewhat flexible, but many maintain that you’ve got to be born here to truly earn your Pine Tree State ID.
Today, we’ll waive a few rules, expand our horizons and look at a number of people with Maine ties — including some real, authentic Mainers — who’ll be competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics when the Games kick off Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Some of the 10 athletes (and one coach) live and work here. Some train here. Others used to train here.
For today (and for the purpose of providing you with a bit of a rooting interest during the upcoming Olympics), all of them are Mainer enough to merit mention.
Julia Clukey, luge
Clukey, now 25, graduated from Augusta’s Cony High School — a school where girls basketball success is a tradition — in 2003.
Former Cony coach Paul Vachon remembers watching Clukey play basketball in middle school, and figuring she’d become an important contributor to his squad when she reached high school.
Clukey, however, had other plans: She gave up hoops, took up luge and began pursuing an Olympic dream that paid off with a spot on the U.S. team for Vancouver.
“She was one of those athletes who you could see could pick up whatever she wanted and be successful with it,” Vachon said.
Even today, seven years after Clukey’s high school graduation, Vachon admits he sometimes plays the “what-if?” game.
“Dave Rollins [the father of former Cony basketball star Katie Rollins] looked at me when we had the [Olympic] sendoff [for Clukey],” Vachon said. “He said, ‘You know what? She may have cost you two more state championships [by taking up luge].”
Today, the competitive Vachon can laugh about the situation.
“For me, admiring how hard athletes work, it just totally blows my mind that somebody can put 12 years of their life into achieving one goal,” Vachon said. “To do that is just something extraordinary.”
In an Internet blog entry posted on Jan. 19, Clukey admits that the life of a world-class luge racer isn’t as glamorous as some might seem. First, she spent much of the previous day driving through five European countries en route to a competition in Italy.
Second, she was dealing with some financial issues, and still fundraising in order to finance her Olympic dream.
“I am selling T-shirts to raise money to help cover some of my expenses I have already endured this season as well as a last-minute fundraiser as I push towards Vancouver next month,” Clukey wrote in her blog.
On her Web page Clukey includes photos of the T-shirt, including the message “Maine, the way LUGE should be,” on the back.
Bode Miller, skiing
Miller has become one of the sport’s most controversial and confounding characters during his career, and will make his fourth Olympic appearance in Vancouver.
Miller, who attended Carrabassett Valley Academy, drew criticism for his off-slope activity at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy, where he failed to medal.
Miller has toyed with the idea of retirement in recent years and eschewed the U.S. Ski Team to train on his own for two seasons. This year, he’s back on the U.S. Team and will compete in all five alpine events in Vancouver.
Not quite lost in the controversy — or perhaps the cause of many lofty expectations that have led to fan disappointment — is the fact that Miller is among the most decorated ski racers in U.S. history.
He won two silver medals in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and was the overall World Cup champion in 2005 and 2008. He’s also a four-time world champ.
The 32-year-old Miller endured some early season injuries this year, but is rounding into shape and could partially rewrite his Olympic legacy with a strong Vancouver effort.
Seth Wescott, snowboarding
Wescott enjoys a lofty perch that few Olympians, living or dead, can claim: He can say he’s the only person to ever win a gold medal in his specialty.
Wescott, a 32-year-old from Farmington, mined Olympic gold in the men’s snowboard cross event during the 2006 Torino Games — the first year it was added to the Olympics.
Wescott heads to Vancouver and will to try to win his second gold medal. He’ll battle a strong field of U.S. teammates as well as FIS World Cup leader Pierre Vaultier of France.
The personable Wescott graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy and is a part owner of The Rack, a bar and restaurant at Sugarloaf, his home mountain.
Burke, a 28-year-old from Paul Smiths, N.Y., has vaulted into the upper echelon of the world’s biathlon elite this season and has spent time wearing the yellow jersey signifying the IBU World Cup’s overall leader.
He has trained at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent and hopes to earn the U.S. its first Olympic biathlon medal in Vancouver.
“The Maine Winter Sports Center was definitely crucial in my development,” Burke said during a recent U.S. biathlon team teleconference. “I spent three years up there and that was at a time where I wasn’t receiving much support from the biathlon association or sponsors or anything like this.”
During the Torino Olympics in 2006, Burke’s top finishes were a 37th in the 10-kilometer sprint and a ninth in the relay.
As the top performer on a much-improved men’s team, Burke said he feels that the U.S. could well medal in biathlon during this Olympiad. He might break through. Teammate Jay Hakkinen could do the honors. Or perhaps the four-member relay squad that could include a couple of other former MWSC athletes.
Burke said that the opportunity that the MWSC provided helped him advance in his sport, and to receive the focused attention he needed that has led him to the level he’s at.
“I was able to get world-class training there for three years when I wouldn’t have been able to get that anywhere else,” Burke said.
Up in Fort Kent, where Barnes lived and trained with the Maine Winter Sports Center, plenty of residents pride themselves on their personal ploye recipes.
During her time in Fort Kent, Barnes got to know ployes, the buckwheat pancakes that are often served with meals.
She knows them well. In fact, she probably knows ployes better than most.
“We actually enjoyed one of the ploye festivals they have there and my sister [Tracy Barnes Colliander] and I actually participated in the ploye wrestling competition,” Barnes said during a recent U.S. biathlon team teleconference. “So that was kind of fun. Although she won, somehow.”
Barnes, 27, is from Durango, Colo., and also competed in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, where she finished 65th in the 15-kilometer individual race.
Ploye-wrestling aside, Barnes said her experience in Fort Kent was important in her development as an Olympic competitor.
“Without the support of the Maine Winter Sports Center, I probably wouldn’t have been able to continue with biathlon,” Barnes said. “I can’t even count how many years I spent up there training — it seems like forever — but it was definitely a great opportunity and a great program and they definitely have one of the best facili-ties in the U.S.”
Ben Koons, nordic skiing
After moving to the central Maine town of Sidney from his native New Zealand, Koons made a mark for himself as a high school skier at Messalonskee High School in Oakland.
Now the 23-year-old will make history, as New Zealand’s first-ever male Olympic cross country skier.
Koons trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center and will be coached in Vancouver by the current University of Maine-Presque Isle nordic coach, Alexei Sotskov.
According to a published report in the “New Zealand Herald,” the former Dartmouth College skier has also developed and implemented a micro hydropower system that will provide power to Rwandan villages.
“Being an athlete can be quite a self-centered endeavor, and it is easy to lose track of what really matters,” Koons told the Herald. “What is more important? That 1.7 billion people live without electricity, or my shin angle and how it relates to my skate skiing? Right now I am working more on the latter, maybe after Vancouver I’ll try to do more for the 1.7 billion.”
Jeremy Teela, biathlon
The 33-year-old Teela hails from Anchorage, Alaska, and trained in Fort Kent with the MWSC.
Teela is making his third Olympic appearance; his best individual finish in the 2006 Torino Games was a 51st-place effort in the 20K individual race. In 2002, he finished 14th in the individual competition — the second-best Olympic finish by an American in the biathlon.
Teela’s advantage in Vancouver: He achieved one of his career milestones at the same venue just a year ago when he finished third in a World Cup individual race.
“After that performance I think I came away with a lot of confidence leading into this year,” Teela said. “I learned a lot, what preparation I need to do before the Games, and also the things I do need to work on, that I’ve been working on over the last year.”
In addition, Teela has spent significant time in Vancouver in the past and is returning to a city he knows well.
“It definitely does feel like a hometown advantage,” Teela said. “I spent three years of my life living in Vancouver, Canada, so that’s where my Olympic dreams gave birth.”
Lowell Bailey, biathlon
Bailey, also a MWSC product, is another veteran member of the U.S. Olympic squad, having also competed in Torino.
The 28-year-old Lake Placid, N.Y., native posted a top finish of 27th in the 20K individual race in those Olympics and handled the third leg on the ninth-place relay squad.
He said his experiences trying to qualify for the Olympics since 2002 have illustrated the U.S. program’s steady progress.
“I’ve been through three different trials situations now starting with the 2002 trials, and [this year] was by far the strongest and most challenging trials that I’ve been through,” Bailey said. “So I think that points to the level that we’re at, collectively, as a nation in the sport and I’m really looking forward to proving it in Vancouver.”
Haley Johnson, biathlon
Johnson grew up in Lake Placid, N.Y., and attended Bates College in Lewiston for two years before heading to Fort Kent and the MWSC in order to focus on biathlon training.
The 28-year-old is also an artist and entrepreneur, having started a greeting card company — Snowfall Cards — to help pay for training expenses.
This will be her first Olympics experience, and she said a 10th-place finish by the U.S. women during the 2009 World Championships has boosted the team’s hopes.
“Going into Vancouver it’s definitely motivating to have had a successful result last year in the relay,” Johnson said. “I think with good shooting, which we think is a strong point of our team, collectively, we’ll definitely have a great chance of doing really well in the relay.”
In addition, frequent visits to the Vancouver course should pay dividends, she said.
“I think we’ve spent a lot of time on what we could consider our home course in Vancouver,” she said.
Laura Spector, biathlon
Spector, a 22-year-old from Lenox, Mass., has also trained at MWSC, and is making her Olympic debut.
She has also trained with the Junior National Biathlon Team in Grand Rapids, Minn., and competed as a collegian at Dartmouth College.
Spector said the academic schedule at Dartmouth has allowed her to pursue both academics and an Olympic dream.
“I’ve been able to take advantage of Dartmouth’s trimester system by going to school in the spring and the summer and taking the fall and winter off so I can attend preseason training camps and a full race season,” Spector said.
Spector’s career highlights to date: a pair of 58th-place finishes in the sprint and pursuit races during the 2009 IBU World Championships.
Alexi Sotskov, nordic ski coach
Sotskov, the cross country ski coach at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, will serve as New Zealand’s head coach in Vancouver.
His squad has just two members — including Koons — and Sotskov will be responsible for everything from actual coaching to travel logistics and ski waxing.
“I’m hoping to gain some of the latest knowledge on what other coaches and teams are doing, how they ski and how they prepare for races of this caliber,” Sotskov said in an UMPI news release announcing his appointment.