SOUTH PORTLAND — Anticipation for the World Cup is building, and not only in Aroostook County.

Tim Burke, who for a few weeks last winter wore the yellow bib signifying the top biathlete in the world, said his international companions are eager to return to the scene of the 2004 event in Fort Kent, where an outpouring of community support and hospitality made an indelible impression.

“Everyone has great memories of 2004,” Burke said Monday at the South Portland headquarters of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has signed on as a sponsor of the two World Cup biathlon events scheduled to begin Friday in Presque Isle and Feb. 10 in Fort Kent. “It was absolutely a world-class event.”

Burke and four fellow U.S. Olympians joined Dan Corcoran, president and general manager of Anthem, and Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center, in South Portland before heading to Aroostook County for the only North American stops on this winter’s International Biathlon Union World Cup tour.

Roughly 500 volunteers in Presque Isle and a similar number in Fort Kent will help stage the events, to be televised to a European audience estimated at 120 million. Shepard said he remains hopeful a domestic TV deal with Comcast will pan out.

Regardless, results and live streaming can be found on biathlonworld.com.

Shepard said another website, discovernorthernmaine.com, can be a portal for visitors both here and in Europe who may find Aroostook County an enticing destination, winter, summer or fall.

Burke spent three years training as a MWSC athlete, rooming in Fort Kent with Yarmouth native Walt Shepard, who retired from competition last year and is completing his studies at Bowdoin.

“The County is very special to me,” Burke said.

“They gave me a home when I didn’t have much support from anywhere else. I’m very thankful for that.”

Accompanying Burke to Monday’s press conference was another biathlete, Andrea Henkel of Germany. She also competed in Fort Kent in 2004, remembers a guided snowmobile adventure on Long Lake, and counts four Olympic medals – two gold – among her accomplishments. She and Burke have been dating for three years. They’re also both coming off illness.

Burke said he hasn’t been able to train for a week and only a few days ago figured he might have to skip Friday’s sprint race at the Nordic Heritage Center.

“Unfortunately, Presque Isle might be kind of a building week for me,” he said. “I hope to be racing, but I don’t expect to be in top form there.”

His U.S. teammate and fellow New Yorker, Lowell Bailey, might be a better bet. At the most recent World Cup in Antholz, Italy, Bailey placed 12th in a sprint, marking the best finish by any American this winter. Seven years ago, he missed the 2004 Fort Kent event because he was skiing for the University of Vermont, but he trained in Fort Kent as another MWSC athlete in 2005 and 2006.

“Among the international crowd – the athletes, the coaches – they have been talking about this since it’s been on the schedule,” Bailey said. “They’ve said nothing but good things about the last World Cup, so you set the bar pretty high.”

Oddly enough, the snow gauge in both venues is abnormally low. Organizers have been forced to make more than 500 truckloads of snow at each site to cover trails to a depth of a foot, said Andy Shepard, who continues to marvel at the County’s rare combination of volunteer spirit, community pride and gracious hospitality.

“The thing to keep in mind about a lot of these European World Cups,” Shepard said, “is that these are in communities that are used to doing these kinds of things. To some degree, it becomes old hat.”

Seven years ago, athletes walking in downtown Fort Kent found themselves being stopped by locals.

“People would ask if they needed anything, if they wanted to come to their house for dinner, if they needed a ride, whatever it was,” Shepard said. “It was that warmth, that sense of community, of caring, that they didn’t get all the time that really made this one of their favorite World Cups.”

All three representatives of an up-and-coming U.S. women’s team spoke of Maine connections Monday.

Haley Johnson of Lake Placid studied at Bates before joining the MWSC and lived in Caribou and Fort Kent from 2003 to 2007.

She helped develop curriculum guides for teachers who incorporate biathlon into their classrooms. Thousands of schoolchildren – many who have adopted foreign athletes – are expected to cheer on the visitors from abroad.

“That was really exciting,” said Laura Spector, a Dartmouth College student from Lenox, Mass., who took part in the 2006 Junior World Championships in Presque Isle. “I remember the schoolchildren coming out to cheer for us. It had a really great hometown feel.”

Spector and Johnson both lived for a time at the 10th Mountain Lodge in Fort Kent, and Johnson also called the Nordic Heritage Center home. Sara Studebaker of Boise, Idaho, is the only one of the trio never to have been involved in the Maine Winter Sports Center, but she has relatives in Gorham – cousins Molly and Shannon Folan may be familiar to local soccer fans – and said she’s looking forward to competing before a home crowd.

“I’m very excited to see what Presque Isle and Fort Kent are able to pull off,” Studebaker said. “I’m sure it will be amazing.”

Corcoran, the Anthem president, also said his company will sponsor a Winter Family Fitness Day on Feb. 21, the Monday of school vacation, at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. admission and rentals of skis and snowshoes will be free.

A skating pond and sledding hills are also available.

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]