PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With less than a week to go before the start of the IBU Youth/Junior Biathlon World Championships, teams are arriving from around the globe to train at the host venue.
More than 400 athletes and coaching staff from 31 countries will participate in eight days of racing at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle Feb. 28 through March 7. Opening ceremonies are slated for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, at the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Gentile Hall.
Currently, biathletes from Russia, Kazakhstan, Chinese Taipei, Poland and Bulgaria are in northern Maine, according to Max Saenger, event sport manager and longtime Maine biathlon official.
“The teams are really happy,” Saenger said. “Everything is going really smoothly.”
First to arrive were the Russians who flew in Feb. 12 just ahead of the Valentine’s Day snowstorm to hit Aroostook County.
“The first couple of days they were here it was windy and snowy [and] I said it must be tough for training and shooting,” Saenger said, adding there was a bit of a language barrier in play. “The coach said, ‘Like Russia, windy and snow there, too. We like wind.’”
That soon became evident, Saenger said.
“Sure enough, we saw them skiing around the course, shooting into the wind and hitting the targets,” he said. “They are good shooters [and] good athletes who know how to deal with the conditions.”
Within a week, those conditions had vastly improved and the 21 members of the Russian team were settled into their northern Maine training regime.
“I like it here,” said Alexander Povarnizsyn, a 19-year-old biathlete from Izhervsk. “It’s cold, but it’s cold in Russia.”
With several days skiing the trails and shooting in the range at the Nordic Heritage Center, Povarnizsyn liked what he saw and was confident about his upcoming races.
“I feel I am in good shape,” he said. “I could come in first position.”
Teammate Yuri Shopin, who turned 21-years-old last week, from Olea Viyanovsk was glad to have several days to get a feel for the local trails.
“This is a difficult course,” he said. “It is steep with dangerous curves [and] I am glad to be here early getting used to skiing this course.”
The athletes were also enjoying getting to know the area and people in northern Maine, including a trip to a local grocery store to shop for Shopin’s birthday cake.
“I noticed four of the athletes in front of the cake display,” Penny McHatten, Presque Isle resident who will be volunteering as a driver during the competition. “I went over and asked if they had any questions about the cake.”
Through use of hand signals and the athletes’ limited English, McHatten said she was able to lend a hand.
“I pointed to one cake and said it was chocolate, and their eyes lit up and they repeated, ‘chocolate?’ and I knew I had them,” she said. “Then I pointed to the other one and said ‘marble’ and I lost them.”
In the end, the Russians left with one of each and McHatten said she was struck with the challenges of something as simple as grocery shopping so far away from home.
“I can’t imagine myself in a Russian grocery store trying to figure out what things are with nobody speaking English,” she said.
The language barrier is also presenting some challenges at the venue where event organizers are working to set up for a world class event around training athletes.
“We are working to make some technical adjustments to the range,” Steve Towle, event manager, said. “It can be tough with the language issue but we are doing it.”
Towle said he and his volunteers are relying on a limited number of translators and written symbols to communicate available course and range times to the athletes.
“So far, it’s all working out,” Towle said, adding things are coming together well for the opening day of competition.
“Obviously snow is a serious factor,” he said. “But we have lots of it under our feet now and it is looking really good.”
For the athletes, the early arrival has not only bought them extra time on the trails, it has allowed them to acclimatize to what for some is a 10-hour time difference.
The 21 Russian athletes spent several days getting used to the time change and by early last week, were training hard.
Making sure they stay healthy and ready for competition is the responsibility of team doctor and snowboarder Artem Kryntsilov, who was spending only his second time on skis last week.
“We started training [Monday] and everything is looking good,” Kryntsilov said. “Do we expect to win? Of course, we came here to win.”
As the athletes train and compete it’s Kryntsilov’s responsibility to make sure they are getting the nutrition needed to make up for the 3,000 to 4,000 calories each athlete burns during a race and deal with any injuries or other physical problems.
“At each training I look at the [athletes] and talk to them on how they feel,” he said. “Then I talk to the coaches if they need to be doing anything different or suggest changes.”
From Saenger’s perspective, the training is coming together.
“We see them doing sprint relays in the range and they are ripping around the course so fast,” he said. “I am pretty sure they are getting well-acclimatized and are comfortable.”
With 2014 being an Olympic year with the games just wrapping up in Sochi, Saenger said it is gratifying to see so many athletes coming to northern Maine.
“It can be easy to say Presque Isle is too far away and to just skip it for the year to spend the time focusing on the Olympics,” he said. “But that has not been the case — they are all so excited to come to the United States and compete.”
It helps, he said, that the area has a solid reputation for hosting events in past years.
In addition to working with athletes once they arrive, Saenger has been working nonstop over the past several months making sure each athlete has the proper documentation to enter the country and compete.
“Once they are here, they have questions about how to get to the venue how to rent a car and on a lot of things we take for granted,” Saenger said. “Once they are in the hotels and get to their wax cabin at Nordic they are really happy.”
As for working with all those athletes who speak a variety of languages, Saenger, who oversaw the Olympic biathlon venue in Vancouver in 2010, said he is able to get by using his English, German and Russian skills.
“It also helps that I speak ‘biathlon,’” he added with a laugh.
A complete schedule of the upcoming IBU Youth/Junior World Championships is available online at http://www.discovernorthernmaine.com/ibu-biathlon-youth-junior-world-champs/