FORT KENT – She might be the one member of the U.S. biathlon team who has spent the least time in Aroostook County.

Even so, Sara Studebaker is already calling it home.

Perhaps that’s what happens when your parents, visiting from Idaho, are cheering from a snow-covered hill above the shooting range where you’ve just dropped 10 out of 10 targets for the second week in a row.

Studebaker’s clean shooting paved the way to a 17th-place finish in Friday’s 7.5-kilometer World Cup sprint. It’s the best result of her young career — except for her 14th a week ago in Presque Isle.

“Something in the water up here, I guess,” Studebaker said with a laugh as she zipped up her rifle bag amid a swirling snow squall Friday afternoon and temperatures that topped out at 10 degrees.

“It just feels very comfortable,” she said. “The people here are obviously very supportive, and I think that’s a big part of it.”

Teammates Haley Johnson (43rd, two missed targets) and Laura Spector (47th, five misses) didn’t fare as well. The German trio of Andrea Henkel, Miriam Gossner and Magdalena Neuner swept the top three places, with Henkel shooting clean and her teammates each missing twice.

Henkel trains with the U.S. team on occasion because she dates Tim Burke, one of the top U.S. men. She appeared with him earlier this month in South Portland at a press conference promoting the consecutive World Cup stops in Presque Isle and Fort Kent.

Friday marked Henkel’s first World Cup victory of the winter after finishing second four times. Burke’s family, up from New York, was among the hundreds of spectators who cheered on Friday’s field of 56 from 20 countries.

In Europe, where the sport is wildly popular, fans at biathlon venues are in the thousands.

“In Germany, we have these big stadiums and lots of spectators,” Henkel said. “I like it also to have this kind of race. These two weeks (in Presque Isle and Fort Kent), it’s cozy. It’s nice to see Americans interested in biathlon.”

Henkel completed her three laps of the course in 23 minutes, 20 seconds. Studebaker, one of 11 women who shot perfectly despite the frigid temperatures and gusty winds, finished 1:26 behind the leader. That’s the way they’ll start today’s 10K pursuit race, with Henkel leaving the stadium first and the rest of the field chasing her, handicapped by their finish on Friday.

“What’s in (Studebaker’s) favor is, the pursuit is a shooting race,” said Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center. “And she’s a shooter.”

In fact, today’s pursuit races — the men start at 9:15 and the women shortly after noon — feature four shooting stages, two prone followed by two standing.

There’s a real possibility that Sunday’s mass start races will be devoid of Americans. Each field is limited to 30 entrants, with the top 25 in overall World Cup standings automatically gaining entry. No American is currently ranked that high, with Lowell Bailey at 39th and Spector at 41st coming closest.

The remaining five spots go to those outside the automatic qualifiers who fare best in Friday’s sprint and today’s pursuit. From that pool, Studebaker currently stands fifth, with two Russian women seconds behind her but the quartet ahead of her all within 22 seconds.

“I would say she has one foot inside, but she still has to get the other one in,” said U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen. “But this is awesome. It just proves the big step she’s taken from last year.”

Studebaker grew up in Boise and has been cross country skiing since she was 3. She first dabbled in biathlon as a seventh-grader after watching the sport televised from the Nagano Olympics in 1998.

Problem was, there’s no shooting range in Boise. She had a friend who was interested, however, and a local cross country coach, Eric Reynolds, had a background in biathlon.

To practice shooting, they took to the desert south of Boise.

“We went out in the desert,” Studebaker said, “and shot next to the guys who were shooting the refrigerators.”

A quick study with a sharp eye, Studebaker qualified for a big junior national race — in Fort Kent, no less — before setting biathlon aside in favor of cross country skiing, in which she competed on national and international teams.

She skied four years at Dartmouth College, won a national team title as a senior in 2007, and within weeks of graduation was part of the U.S. biathlon development program in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That she could knock down every target Friday and still finish more than a minute behind the medalists offers a glimpse into the fitness level of the world’s top biathletes, such as Henkel, who is currently ranked third overall.

“That’s the thing,” said Kahkonen, former head coach of the Finnish national team. “It takes years and years of hard training. (Studebaker) needs two to three years of hard work before she can be skiing at the level the top athletes are.”

For now, her parents, John and Beth, and her uncle and grandfather from Rhode Island will enjoy watching Studebaker in today’s pursuit. If she shoots well again, they may find themselves back on the hill, cheering again in Sunday’s mass start.

“You always worry,” Beth Studebaker said as her daughter completed her third and final lap Friday, “if you come, are you going to be a jinx or a distraction? We didn’t even speak to her (Thursday) night. You have to stay away and let her get her head in the game.”

Last week in Presque Isle, Studebaker shot poorly in pursuit and dropped from 14th to 27th. She’s hopeful today will turn out better, particularly when she’s feeling as if she could prop her feet on the coffee table without anyone getting upset.

“I haven’t spent as much time as a lot of the other people up here,” Studebaker said, “but it’s home. It feels very relaxed.” 

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