Russell Currier made a lasting initial impression on Will Sweetser, but not one that suggested the youngster from the tiny Aroostook County town of Stockholm had an Olympic future ahead of him.
“When I first met him he was a little fat eighth-grader wearing Carhartt overalls who didn’t want to go skiing,” said Sweetser, who now serves as director of competition programs at the Maine Winter Sports Center.
Currier soon took a major-league liking to the sport. Stockholm Elementary School offered skiing as part of its physical education curriculum, and additional opportunities provided the son of Christopher and Deborah Currier even more incentive.
“They also used to let the kids ski at recess and during school breaks,” said Sweetser, who went on to become one of Currier’s coaches with the MWSC, “and Russell learned to love it quick. Soon he was skiing to and from school.”
Much has changed since those days more than a decade ago. The Stockholm school closed in 2004 due to a lack of students — Currier was one of eight pupils in his eighth-grade graduating class two years earlier — and is now a community center for the town of 220 residents.
And Currier himself has parlayed his passion and skill in a sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting into an opportunity to compete on sports’ largest stage — as a member of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon team that will compete at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, next month.
“Everybody’s proud of him,” said Christopher Currier, whose son remains in Europe to compete at a World Cup event in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy, next weekend. “The whole County is proud of him. He belongs to everybody up here.”
Currier was nominated for one of the final two spots on the U.S. men’s team Sunday after being the leading American finisher in three of the four International Biathlon Union Cup races held in Ridnaun-Val Ridanna, Italy, during the past two weekends.
The 26-year-old Currier, a 2006 graduate of Caribou High School, was one of four candidates for those two spots — a second chance of sorts after he did not qualify for U.S. Biathlon’s World Cup team last fall.
“People who know Russ knew he was capable of this,” said Seth Hubbard, currently the biathlon coach at the MWSC and a team member there along with Currier in 2006 and 2007. “They knew it was just a matter of him being in the right spot and being prepared to having the day Russell is capable of having.”
At least one aspect of Currier’s rise to Olympic status was generations in the making.
“My family has always been big hunters and fishermen,” said Christopher Currier. “He was familiar with shooting guns and using a fishing rod long before he got started in skiing. He was probably shooting guns from the time he was 5 years old.”
Currier’s introduction to skiing came a few years later, but his work ethic and commitment to that sport quickly led coaches to believe high achievement was possible.
“About two years of training gives you a pretty good idea of where you might go,” said Sweetser. “In most cases it’s not so much about being athletic as it is being able to handle the training, and he just loved it.
“He wouldn’t think anything of getting on a mountain bike as a 15-year-old and going for a four- or five-hour ride around the woods.”
Currier, who first learned how to ski as a part of the MWSC’s Healthy Hometowns program at the Stockholm school, won the local middle-school league championship as an eighth-grader and a year later was scoring a podium (third-place) finish at the Junior Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska.
And as Currier quickly progressed friends took notice — on one occasion when he was scheduled to race in nearby Fort Kent, the Stockholm school was closed so his classmates could see him ski.
He competed in the biathlon while also becoming a standout skier during his years at Caribou High School. It was a demanding schedule, but he won five individual state skiing championships for the Vikings while developing into one of the nation’s top junior biathletes at the MWSC.
Currier also won a Junior Olympic national championship in cross-country skiing during his senior year at Caribou.
“Russell was very motivated, a hard worker,” said Robert Sprague, the skiing coach at Caribou High School from 1996 to 2010. “He also was training in biathlon at the same time, and there was a huge amount of time and energy involved because you really have to discipline yourself in both.”
Currier earned his way onto the U.S. national biathlon team five years ago, and since then has competed nationally and internationally as part of what is an 11-month work year.
His breakthrough season with the U.S. team came in 2012, when he qualified to compete on the top-level World Cup circuit and scored career-best sixth-place finishes at events in Kontiolahti, Finland, and Nove Meso, Czech Republic.
Currier had hoped to follow a similar path to an Olympic berth this year, but was left off the World Cup roster based on his roller-skiing race results against the other American biathletes during the summer and fall.
“When he didn’t make the World Cup team he just worked that much harder,” said Christopher Currier. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs for years, we’re used to that, but the determination this kid has is just unbelieveable.”
Currier continued to work out and in December earned a trip to Europe to represent the United States team in IBU Cup events through his performances in a series of qualifying races held in Minnesota. And in those four IBU Cup races with an Olympic berth on the line, he scored three first-place finishes and one second, far topping the other three challengers for the two available tickets to Sochi.
Currier’s potential for his Olympic debut may depend on the shooting phase of the biathlon, given his strength as a cross-country skier.
“When he shoots well he’s right up there with the best in the world, like when he had two sixth places in the World Cup in 2012,” said Sweetser. “But like anyone else, when he doesn’t shoot well he’s a very good cross-country skier with a lot of missed targets.”
In addition to spending considerable time working out — from 700 to 900 hours a year on physical training alone, estimates Sweetser — Currier also devotes long hours to all that is involved with the shooting phase, from making the transition from skier to shooter to the repetitive act of shooting itself.
“Russell has really improved in his procedural time,” said Sweetser, referring to the seconds during the race spent switching from the skiing stage to the shooting stage. “That’s helped him a lot, so now when he’s shooting well he’s world-class.
“He’s been performing really well, and he’s shown he can perform well in World Cup events,” he added. “But the Olympics are an entirely different thing, there are a lot of performance stresses out there. But should he shoot well, I can see Russell up there in the top 20.”
And while Currier doesn’t get to spend a lot of time back home these days — he typically returns to Stockholm in April to capitalize on the region’s late snow and again during the summer between training camps — there are plenty of folks in The County and beyond who will support his Olympic experience like they see him every day.
“We’ve been proud of him for years,” said Sprague. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been a lot of hard work and perseverance that’s got him here. He’s worked a long time for this.”