FORT KENT, Maine — More than a dozen Fort Kent-area youth in grades 3-8 stood and shot shoulder to shoulder with Olympic- and world champion-caliber biathletes last week as part of a Maine Winter Sports Center-sponsored citizens’ biathlon competition.
The youngsters are part of the ongoing Jalbert Youth Program at the 10th Mountain Lodge and could very well ski their way to future international competitive events.
“This has been a very successful program,” director Megan Toussaint said. “We get 12 to 15 kids showing up every week and we do a lot of shooting-specific work and games on skis to work on speed and agility.”
The program started thanks to a donation from former Fort Kent resident and outdoor enthusiast Phyllis Jalbert.
Toussaint, herself a former competitor with Maine Winter Sports, is making biathlon — and an active lifestyle — a year-round activity with the program.
“In the summer we are doing hiking, mountain biking and roller skiing,” she said. “We do take a little break in the spring.”
Toussaint hopes the program develops goals and values in the youngsters that last years.
“Getting the kids outdoors is the most important thing,” she said. “When you hear in the news about the health crisis in this country and obesity issues, it’s even more important [and] now is the time you have to hit them at this young age and show how being physically fit is fun and makes you feel good.”
Equally important, Toussaint said, is the exposure the program and Maine Winter Sports gives the youngsters to professional athletes.
Over the past week Olympians, world champions and elite biathletes and Nordic skiers have been in northern Maine participating in the Junior Cross Country Olympics, the US/North American Biathlon Championships, the USSA Cross Country Championships and the Super Tour.
“The kids really look up to these athletes like you or I would to a star basketball player,” Toussaint said. “It makes such a huge difference that they can meet these Olympians right in their own back yard and talk to them.”
Among the shining stars from the MWS program are Russell Currier from Stockholm and Grace Boutot from Fort Kent.
Both competed this past week, taking home gold medals in front of the hometown crowds.
For Boutot, biathlon has come full circle.
“I got my start in the Jalbert Youth Program,” Boutot said. “I was 11 years old shooting the air rifles and it was really fun.”
Since then, the sport has taken her to competitions around North America and Europe where she now competes with some of her former coaches like Tracey and Lanny Barnes.
“I remember thinking they were so much older than me,” said Boutot, who now works with youth in the Jalbert program. “Now I think what an honor it would be to see some of these kids grow up and compete against me.”
Olympian Kikkan Randall, winner of last week’s USSA 30-kilometer cross country ski race, said the sport impacts participants off the trails, as well.
“It really helps them develop life goals and learn how to focus,” Randall said. “It’s so important to get kids hooked on sports early and it’s special for me to be able to help them do that.”
Randall joined 35 other athletes and coaches taking part in this week’s Super Tour in a middle school girls ski clinic in Madawaska on Thursday.
“It’s great to see these kids because they are the future of the sport,” Randall said. “It’s thrilling for us.”
Toussaint welcomes all youngsters interested in learning more about biathlon and where it can take them.
“If you generally know how to ski and want to learn about biathlon, just show up,” she said.
Information on the program is available at www.10thmtskiclub.org/programs.html.