The 2011 Biathlon World Cup in Aroostook County | How New England Can Save the World
But up in the original ski country, the sport had gone into decline. “After World War II, they started plowing the roads,” explains Andy Shepard. “Roads they once skied were now bare ground. Basketball became the social hub in the winter.” Shepard was an exec at L.L. Bean in the early 1990s, and he watched as the old industries built around hydropower began their inexorable decline: the shoe mills, the apparel factories, all the business heading off to Asia. “There was all kinds of trouble,” he says. “After the Iron Curtain fell, that’s when they closed Loring Air Force Base, which meant an exodus of maybe 25,000 people from a region that had barely had 100,000 to start. And the lumber industry was changing fast with the opening of Eastern European markets.”
As economies faltered, so did the bonds that held these rural communities together. People began moving away. And among other things, not many kids were out picking potatoes all fall any more; Aroostook County was still rugged, but its residents a little less so. “Northern Maine was at the top of the list for childhood obesity, for type 2 diabetes, for asthma, for childhood smoking,” Shepard says. “There was a real and immediate impact on the quality of kids’ lives, but also a potentially disastrous impact on the future productivity of the state. I mean, they’re going to grow up to enter the work force, and the productivity of workers with diabetes is lower, and their drain on the health system is greater. They cost more and produce less. With the relative weakness of our economy, there was less room to absorb any of that.”
But Shepard had an unlikely interest: biathlon, the combination of shooting and cross-country skiing that is one of Europe’s top TV sports, but in this country is about as marginal as, say, candlepin bowling. Still, it seemed to Shepard (whose son Walt is a world-class biathlete) that the sport might offer a way out for northern Maine. In 1997, as he and colleague Max Cobb were flying home from a U.S. Biathlon Association meeting in Park City, Utah, in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, they sketched out a plan to make northern Maine a center of skiing excellence–and to use that as a lever for economic and community improvement.
“It seemed to me that those Olympic aspirations could be tools in a model of sustainability for rural Maine,” Shepard explains, leaning forward, his voice rising a bit. “The same attributes that are required of an endurance athlete–goal-setting, discipline, personal accountability–are critical to success in life.” He’s a salesman: He sold Maine governor Angus King, and maybe even more important, he sold Owen Wells, president of the Libra Foundation, a major Portland-based philanthropy that was looking to play a role in the most impoverished corners of the state.
And so–with $1.5 million in hand–Wells and Shepard formed the Maine Winter Sports Center and set to work on two different projects. One was building great Nordic skiing venues in remote places. They’d first thought of using the old Air Force base itself, but a visit reminded them that the qualities that make for a good runway (dead flatness) make for lousy skiing. So instead, they built two Olympic-quality biathlon courses an hour apart, one in Fort Kent and the other in Presque Isle.
Aspiring athletes from around the country began to converge on the area, attracted by the offer of great coaching and training, plus small stipends to help run the other half of Shepard’s vision: the Healthy Hometowns program, designed to introduce skiing early on as a way to get kids back outdoors in the winter.
“It’s not about developing fast skiers as much as getting kids to appreciate an active outdoor lifestyle,” Shepard notes. They bought a few thousand pairs of skis, which they rented out for nominal sums, and they helped towns across the region plan ski trails and teach the basics. “We want to get them at an age before they start choosing clothes for themselves, when we can still have an effect on their self-image,” says Shepard. “Say, 8 to 13.”
The two halves of the program–elite athletics and teaching chubby kids to ski–may seem far apart, but in fact they’ve proved complementary. In March 2004, for instance, the MWSC managed to lure the Biathlon World Cup to Fort Kent for a four-day event, which was a certifiable Big Deal, given the huge dollars the sport generates in Europe. “It was like asking the Patriots to play a game in some farming town in Bavaria, just because they’d built a stadium,” says Shepard–but it worked.
Twenty thousand spectators came out to cheer–a quarter of the county’s population. More than that, 700 volunteers made the weekend run with both smoothness and charm. “The European athletes loved it, because it was kind of old-school,” Shepard recalls. “I mean, people took the Swedish team to Stockholm, Maine, for a community dinner. The old people were speaking Swedish with them. The French team could talk with the whole Acadian population. One classroom from Presque Isle adopted the Germans–they had all these posters written in German, the names of all the athletes on them. This was like the Olympics coming to Aroostook County.”
The big competition and the many junior championships and the like that followed were a shot in the arm to towns like Fort Kent, where new restaurants and shops opened. But they also helped make skiing real across the region, where all of a sudden people young and old, folks who’d been exposed to the pageantry of the World Cup, began to get excited.