Russell Currier admits that as much as he tried to relax during the holiday season, he was hard pressed to take his eyes off his most sought-after prize these days — a return to the Olympics.
Now a veteran of the national biathlon ranks at age 30, the Stockholm native finds himself in the same position he was four years ago when he was the only Mainer to compete in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
He and three other Americans — Leif Nordgren, Paul Schommer, and Jake Ellingson — will compete in International Biathlon Union events the next two weekends in Bienzo-Orsblie, Slovakia, and Arber, Germany.
The top finisher from that group in four races over those two weekends will earn a trip to the 2018 Winter Olympics that run Feb. 9-25 in PyeongChang, South Korea, and will join Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke and Sean Doherty, who already have been nominated to the U.S. team based on performances in previous World Cup events.
The second-best U.S. competitor in the IBU races will be the frontrunner to earn a discretionary berth for the final spot on the five-man U.S. squad, but that’s not a certainty.
Currier hopes his experience at two IBU Cup events in early 2014 that qualified him for the Sochi Games will be beneficial during what in all likelihood be his final Olympic quest.
“I’m in pretty much the exact same position (as 2014),” said Currier, who is scheduled to compete in 10-kilometer sprint races both Saturday and Sunday in Slovakia before moving on to Germany.
That Currier has this chance to return to Olympic competition seemed unlikely two years ago. Retirement became the more likely scenario after a post-Sochi period when considerable frustration overtook his normally reserved approach to this combination of cross-country skiing and riflery.
The 2006 Caribou High School graduate split the 2014-2015 season immediately after the Olympics between the top-level U.S. World Cup team and the second-tier IBU Cup circuit.
A year later he was nearly out of the sport.
“It was the worst season I ever had,” Currier said. “I didn’t make any team at all. I just wasn’t really able to put it together and was on the verge of retiring and trying something else.”
But Currier wasn’t quite ready to move on from the biathlon, his sporting passion since 1999 when he participated in the Healthy Hometowns ski program offered at his former Stockholm K-8 school through the Maine Winter Sports Center, now known as the Outside Sport Institute.
“It was mostly curiosity,” said Currier. “If you’re going to go one more year you’re going to go two more years because nobody quits one year before the Olympics. I just had to know if I tried a few things differently would it work or would it fail. I just needed to know that either I took my chances and it worked out or I took my chances and it didn’t. At least I’d have the satisfaction of knowing.”
That curiosity was rewarded with a return to European competition for much of the 2016-2017 season, including a 34th-place finish in a World Cup race at Oberhof, Germany.
“That was the first top-40 I’d had in about four years,” he said. “I just had to keep telling myself that it was possible and I could be up there even if I never quite proved it until finally I had something tangible to show that I had made some progress.”
Currier describes the months leading up to this weekend’s return to Europe as similarly up and down while acknowledging the stiff competition within the U.S. contingent.
“Overall it’s been an improvement from last year,” he said. “I’ve been able to bring my own performance up, but so has the rest of the team.”
Currier didn’t qualify for the U.S. World Cup squad that raced in Europe late last year so he went to Minnesota in mid-December where his performance in a series of national-level races earned him a berth on the January IBU Cup squad.
“It gave me a lot of experience and a good idea of where I am performance-wise,” said Currier, who last raced on Dec. 20. “I was pretty pleased with my shooting overall. Skiing wasn’t great, but some of that was just that I didn’t have a lot of energy in the legs.”
December’s deep chill in northern Maine provided challenging training conditions for Currier over Christmas break, but he left for Europe with an air of optimism for his Olympic chances.
“The truth is you can look at it from different perspectives, like there’s plenty of chance for each one of us,” Currier said. “You can’t do any more than you’re already doing, but in this sport the slightest change can make a huge difference and there’s so many different ways to make up a lot of ground. It’s kind of scary sometimes.”
Currier already has experienced that unique feeling of representing his country on the world’s largest athletic stage, and even though his finishes in three Sochi races — 61st in the 10-kilometer sprint, 50th in the 20K individual pursuit and 16th as part of the U.S. relay team — didn’t place him near the medal stand, the opportunity leaves him longing for an encore.
“There’s a lot of excitement in it,” said Currier, who may retire this year but hasn’t established a firm timeline for that decision. “I remember being glad I was able to go into it prepared and feeling that I did everything I could. I wasn’t disappointed but I also thought I could have done better and wanted to do more.
“Unfortunately in the years right after (Sochi) I had even more difficulty proving that and at this point, honestly, I’d just be happy to be part of the team again.”
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