STOCKHOLM, Maine — This cozy village nestled in a valley on a snow-covered side road somewhat hidden between U.S. Route 1 and State Route 161 fits the stereotype of a winter wonderland.
Visitors must traverse down a steep hill to enter the northern Aroostook County town of a little more than 200 residents, but are greeted by several large ornamental snowflakes attached to roadside utility poles.
Just beyond the bottom of the hill rests the heart of a village originally settled by Swedish immigrants during the late 1800s.
Popular destinations include the Eureka Hall Restaurant and Anderson’s Store, a traditional all-encompassing stop complete with a coffee counter, meat market and gas pumps just as ready to fill snowmobile tanks as those of automobiles and pickup trucks.
Just beyond view is the former Stockholm School, now a community center. Behind the school are cross-country ski trails, which along with the undulating terrain of the region have made the area a popular recreation destination not only for local skiers but also for aspiring athletes with bigger plans.
“You get a lot of biathletes here in the summer, too,” said Jan Clark, a cashier at Anderson’s Store. “We’re used to seeing them around here training.”
While residents are welcoming of all such visitors, there’s a special place in their hearts for favorite son Russell Currier, who has worked his way up through the nearby Maine Winter Sports Center to become a member of the U.S. Olympic men’s biathlon team that will begin competing Saturday at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“He’s very good to the community, he’s a very nice guy and he’s very good to the kids,” said Clark, who has known Currier since training under him for a job at the restaurant nine years ago. “When he’s home he goes up to the New Sweden school and skis with the kids, and if they see him up to the Stockholm school he’ll ski with them and teach them what he knows.
“We’re all very proud of him. This is a big thing around here.”
While the 26-year-old Currier may be a Stockholm native, he’s an adopted son of all of Aroostook County, as evidenced by a recent public supper held at Currier’s alma mater, Caribou High School, that raised more than $5,900 to help send his parents, Chris and Debbie Currier, to Russia to watch their son’s Olympic debut.
“The whole County is proud of him,” said Chris Currier just after his son was named to the Olympic team last month.. “He belongs to everybody up here.”
Russell Currier is appreciative of all the support.
“I’m stoked,” he said by email from Antholz, Italy, where the U.S. Olympic biathlon team was training until leaving for Sochi early this week. “The ratio of people to Olympians right now for Stockholm, Maine, is about 200 to one. That’s not too bad. The amount of support that has been pouring in lately has been great and really proves the charm of a small town.”
Currier sees much of that small-town introduction to the biathlon in the world stage he’ll experience at the Olympics.
“The first winter carnival that I competed in was at the Stockholm School some decades back,” wrote Currier in a recent blog entry. “The spectator count may be grander for this next one, but the competitive effort never changes.”
That consistent outlook has helped fuel Currier’s rise from a beginning skier who initially wasn’t enamored of the sport to one of the nation’s top competitors in this blend of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.
“Skiing has typically been my stronger side of the sport,” said Currier. “It’s not always that I’m skiing fast, but that my shooting still has a ways to go. The work and talent is all there. It’s just a matter of execution, which is much easier said than done.”
Currier’s introduction to skiing came in 1999 through the Healthy Hometowns ski program offered by the Maine Winter Sports Center at the former Stockholm K-8 school. Soon, he was skiing back and forth to school, and within two years he attended his first biathlon practice on his 14th birthday.
“Gale Anderson [of Anderson’s Store] tells stories of seeing Russell out skiing in the morning an hour before he had to go to school,” said Clark.
It wasn’t long before his aspirations grew greater, fueled by promising results in national and international competitions.
“Competing on a World Cup level was in the back of my mind from the start,” said Currier. “On the other hand, at that age you never really know what you’re getting yourself into. It wasn’t until I went to world juniors when I was 16 before I had a good idea of what the sport was really about.”
Currier balanced his introduction to the biathlon with his success as a high school skier, winning five individual state championships at Caribou as well as a Junior Olympic national championship in cross-country skiing during his senior year.
He also steadily climbed the U.S. junior biathlon ranks, a development he credits to the coaches and facilities that were available locally.
“There was a small and fading ski community in northern Maine before the Maine Winter Sports Center first started to ramp up,” Currier said. “Prior to that, no one in the area had even heard of biathlon. So if you see that as a point A and see their two A-licensed world-class venues within 90 minutes of each other helping athletes train for the Olympics as a point B, I think the success factor is pretty obvious.”
The 2006 Caribou High graduate earned his way onto the U.S. national biathlon team five years ago, eventually breaking through at the sport’s highest level during the 2011-12 season when he scored career-best sixth-place finishes in World Cup races at Kontiolahti, Finland, and Nove Meso, Czech Republic.
“The two top-10 results from a couple years back were a great reminder of what I set out to reach,” said Currier. “It really brought back the sense of accomplishment and confidence that I hadn’t felt since I was 15. Seeing the names surrounding mine on the front page of the result list was downright surreal for me.”
Those performances also made a 2014 Olympic berth seem more realistic, though that hope faded briefly when Currier did not initially qualify for this season’s U.S. World Cup or International Biathlon Union teams based on his roller-skiing race results last summer and fall.
“Not making it to the December [IBU] or [World Cup] team was a big letdown for me,” he wrote in his blog. “What it spelled out was that I was going to have to take the long road to making the Olympic team, if at all. I was going to have to play the last-minute card to secure a spot. What you can take from that is that there was still a chance — a chance to turn everything around and make the season a success.”
Currier’s ultimately earned a second chance, as U.S. Biathlon sent him to Europe later in the season to race not only on the IBU Cup circuit, but also in four IBU races in Italy over two January weekends that were used to fill the final two spots on the U.S. Olympic roster.
Currier was one of four biathletes battling for those openings, with each competitor’s top three finishes used in the selection process. The Mainer soon became a clear choice, earning three first-place finishes and a second among the contending Americans in the four races to secure his Olympic berth.
“In retrospect, I was actually very confident about the season,” Currier said. “There was more reason to suspect that I would snag a spot on the team than there was that I would fold under the pressure and go home early. The problem revolves around any trace amount of chance that I could not make it. At the end of the day, the best move was to just focus on what I was doing at that very moment and what it could do to further the positive goals.”
The U.S. men’s biathlon team has never finished better than ninth in an Olympic event, and while veterans on the 2014 team such as Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey have high hopes, Currier is reluctant to pinpoint a personal performance expectation.
“I don’t believe in making too specific goals in a sport about as inconsistent as rolling dice,” he said.