PRESQUE ISLE — The atmosphere at the Nordic Heritage Center was a special one Friday.
Youths came from all over Aroostook County, yelling and ringing cow bells, showing their appreciation for the world’s top biathletes as Presque Isle’s World Cup event got under way with the men’s and women’s sprint.
Arnd Peiffer of Germany and Helena Ekholm of Sweden fed off that energy big time, as they recorded the fastest times of the day in the 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) race for men and 7.5K (4.7 miles) event for the women.
Peiffer posted a time of 25 minutes, 25.8 seconds in the men’s event, while Ekholm covered the course in 20:38.7 for the women in the biathlon, which combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting.
Both athletes are experiencing their first time in Maine and are enjoying themselves.
“It looks a little bit like Sweden,” said Ekholm, adding that the County and Sweden have “about the same” amount of snow.
Peiffer enjoyed the energy of the crowd, which included middle school students from Presque Isle and the high school’s varsity cheerleading squad.
“I like the people, they’re very friendly. It’s awesome to see the kids in the stadium,” Peiffer said.
Rounding out the top five finishers on the men’s side were Martin Fourcade of France (25:44.7), Ivan Tcherezov of Russia (26:05.2), Tarjei Boe of Norway (26:14.7) and Sweden’s Carl Jordan Bergman (26:22.0).
The top American finisher was Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, N.Y., who was 25th in 27:18.7.
Peiffer’s first-place finish enabled him to gain 60 points in the overall World Cup standings, which vaults him into fifth place with 432 points, while Boe maintained his hold on the top world ranking with 641 points, collecting 43 with his fourth-place effort.
Fourcade actually skied the course quicker than Peiffer, but Peiffer was clean with his target shooting while Fourcade missed on one shot, resulting in a penalty lap.
“(Fourcade) was faster in ski time, but he had one penalty,” Peiffer said. “It was important.”
One of Peiffer’s specialties is the sprint, as he has excelled in that race throughout the winter.
“The sprint is my favorite competition. All of my victories (this year) have been in the sprint,” he said.
The crowds weren’t as high as those that Peiffer has experienced competing in Europe, but he enjoyed the nonpartisan atmosphere of the spectators.
“In Germany it’s a bit (louder) because everybody knows your name and they’re crying your name,” Peiffer said, “but I like it here because everybody gets the same support, and that’s very nice.”
Peiffer also compared Presque Isle’s course to the one that is hosting the World Championships in Siberia later this winter.
Unlike Peiffer, Ekholm hasn’t enjoyed much success in sprint races over her career, but that changed Friday as she was nine seconds quicker than Tora Berger of Norway (20:47.5).
“It’s probably (my) worst one,” admitted Ekholm.
Rounding out the top five were Vaij Semerenko of the Ukraine (20:58.1), Michela Ponza of Italy (21:00.7) and Marie Dorin of France (21:09.3).
American Sara Studebaker of Boise enjoyed an extraordinary day, finishing 14th in 21:38.9 in a clean run as she hit all her targets.
“Putting together a clean race is awesome, its always the goal,” Studebaker said. “To go ahead and do that on home soil was awesome.”
Studebaker has trained in Aroostook County before, and she was certainly happy to pick up 26 Cup points and garner a good starting position for Sunday’s pursuit race.
“Starting the pursuit so high up is really a little bit nerve-wracking,” Studebaker said, “but I think it’ll be really exciting.”
Ekholm was also perfect in the shooting range.
“Shooting has always been very good for me, but this season I think I’m more relaxed,” she said.
Ekholm entered Friday’s action ranked second worldwide, and her first-place run coupled with top-ranked Kaisa Makarainen of Finland’s ninth-place effort has the two separated by eight points heading into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. mixed relay.
“I have been fighting to reach Kaisa the whole season, she’s always been before me,” Ekholm said. “I’ve come closer and closer.”
Ekholm has also enjoyed her time in the County so far, has done some shopping in Presque Isle and claims that accessories, such as makeup and hair supplies, are less expensive here than in her homeland.