Cold weather did not deter local supporters of biathlete Russell Currier from pouring into Caribou High School on Jan. 26 for a benefit supper to help send his parents to Sochi, Russia, to see him compete in the 2014 Olympic Games.
The temperature was zero outside, but the excitement of more than 400 people from Caribou and surrounding towns heated up the cafeteria for Christopher and Deborah Currier of Stockholm, who will fly Feb. 6-7 from New York to Moscow to Sochi.
Russell Currier, 26, earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Biathlon team with top performances in trials held in Ridnaun, Italy, earlier this month. The 2006 Caribou High School graduate is the first athlete trained solely by the Maine Winter Sports Center to win a place on the U.S. Olympic team.
Chris and Debbie Currier have seen their son compete in Maine and Canada, but this is the first time they will travel overseas, where most of his World Cup races have taken place.
“He’s the poster child of success for the Maine Winter Sports Center,” said his father, recalling Russell’s initial involvement in the center’s program at Stockholm Elementary School. “They knew he had something under the hood. And it’s not just skiing. His grades and study habits soared [after he started Maine Winter Sports Center programs]. His report card went from Cs to As, and he was elected to the National Honor Society his senior year.”
He also became a champion cross-country skier during high school, while also training for biathlon competition, which combines skiing and marksmanship.
Since high school, he has competed on the U.S. biathlon team and in World Cup competition in Europe.
His parents’ decision to follow him to Russia was not worry-free, as threats of terrorist attacks created safety concerns.
“If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Debbie Currier. “It’s definitely a cloud over the enjoyment, but I am still looking forward to taking in all the cultures, seeing the Olympic Village, the opening ceremonies — just being there.”
Obtaining Russian visas was “the last big hurdle,” she said of the nerve-wracking preparations for departure. They received assistance from Phil Bosse in Sen. Susan Collin’s Caribou office and from Max Cobb, president and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association, who helped Andy Shepard establish the Maine Winter Sports Center in 1999. Cobb also has provided advice, instructions and a detailed spectators’ guide.
Once the Curriers’ travel plans were certain, the community went into action.
“So many people wanted to show their support,” said Robert Sprague, Stockholm friend, neighbor and Caribou High School ski coach. “There was this bubbling up of excitement” after Russell made the team, and the feeling “well, we have to do something.”
Sprague said there was no formal committee to plan the benefit supper. People just kept offering to help.
Volunteers formed a kitchen crew. Culinary arts students from the high school made spaghetti sauce. Other students made banners and table decorations. Anderson’s Store in Stockholm donated meat and dozens of pastries.
As people continued to ask what they could do, the response was “bring desserts.” The offerings were so abundant that plates of goodies were sold for $2 each at the end of the evening.
“It’s serendipitous how things work out,” Sprague said.
He and Brent Jepson put together a slideshow of photos spanning Currier’s skiing career that ran throughout the evening. Supporters were invited to write congratulatory messages in a book and on a giant poster that the Curriers will deliver to their son. Reporters from Maine Public Radio, the Caribou Aroostook Republican weekly newspaper and WAGM-TV conducted interviews, and student musicians took turns playing the piano for background music.
“I have seen people tonight that I haven’t seen in years,” said one well-wisher. “We should get together like this more often.”
Sprague said more than $5,900 was collected, and people who were unable to attend delivered donations to the Curriers at home and work.
Russell Currier has gotten used to media attention, but the experience is new to his parents, who even tolerated reporters from Portland coming to their home to take photographs. Reporters also visited Anderson’s Store in search of local color on Stockholm’s Olympian.
“It’s not my favorite thing, but we realize that’s part of it,” said his mother.
The WAGM-TV news team expressed the spirit of the community Monday as they closed out the news with the observation that the Curriers are giving everyone an opportunity to share their experience.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.