FORT KENT – They saved the best for last.

Two weeks of World Cup biathlon in Aroostook County ended in fairy-tale fashion at the 10th Mountain Ski Center.

Maine Winter Sports Center alumnus Lowell Bailey, who failed to qualify for Sunday morning’s 15-kilometer mass start because he forgot half his bullets on Saturday, sneaked into the 30-man field only after three racers dropped out.

Bailey responded with the first top 10 finish of his career, a ninth that sent the entire U.S. biathlon contingent into a celebration of high-fives, hugs and even a few teary eyes.

Eighteenth heading into the final shooting stage, Bailey cleaned the targets and skated off for one final 2.5K lap on the trails he learned well as a resident of Fort Kent in the two years after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2005.

“That last loop was …,” said Bailey, pausing and still a little dazed from the emotional roller coaster of the previous 24 hours. “Painful would be putting it lightly. I was hanging on for dear life.”

The fastest skier on tour, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, entered the woods right behind Bailey after skiing two penalty loops from the final standing shooting stage.

Bailey stuck with the Norwegian as long as possible, but his main concern was being passed by the skiers from Ukraine and Germany who were drafting behind him, waiting for their first opportunity.

Bailey, and all those who remember him here and those who simply recognized the lone American in the race, refused to allow an opening. Cowbells and vuvuzuelas and full-throated yells and the faces of kids whose schools Bailey had visited all poured more fuel into a tank already running on fumes.

“As many of you saw, it was down to the wire there for Top 10, and it took everything I had,” Bailey said. “I really want to thank everyone for cheering (Sunday) because it does help. It really does. It helped me get to the finish line.”

Once across — a second ahead of the Ukrainian and 2.4 ahead of the German — Bailey collapsed in the snow. He lay there, chest heaving, grizzled cheek in the snow, for how long? Twenty seconds? Fifty seconds? A minute?

Finally, he pushed himself upright, wiped a sleeve across his face, and accepted a congratulatory pat from Carl Johan Bergman, a Swede who led the field entering the final standing stage but missed two shots and wound up 12th.

A voice called out and Bailey turned to it. Bernd Eisenbichler leaned over the fencing with outstretched arms.

Eisenbichler is the U.S. high performance director. He has worked with Bailey for a dozen years, almost since Bailey joined the national team at 16. They could have talked about the low points, such as Bailey’s boneheaded blunder from Saturday’s pursuit, when he started the race with only two of the necessary four magazine clips of bullets and cost himself an automatic berth in Sunday’s mass start.

They could have talked about Bailey contracting the swine flu last November on the eve of an Olympic season, or of his Olympic debut itself, when a steady rain that made tracks icy fast suddenly switched to heavy snow for all but the dozen competitors sent off early who avoided the glue-like conditions.

Bailey didn’t miss a target and still only finished 36th.

Instead, neither man said a word.

They simply embraced.

“I’ve worked with these guys for years and years and years,” Bailey said.

“I feel like this is a huge personal success, but even more so it’s a huge team success. It really is. That might sound cliche, but I really mean it.”

And here his voice finally broke, his eyes glistened. To reach such heights so soon after plumbing such depths was almost too much to absorb.

“It’s something that means a lot to me,” he said, “to the whole team.”

Bailey expected his mother to barge through the crowd next and envelop her 29-year-old son. Instead, he spotted his sister, who lives in Portland.

“Kendra, where’s mom?”

“You kind of told her that you didn’t have a chance to start today,” came the reply, “so she left at 7 a.m.”

Which meant that Elizabeth Bailey was driving somewhere in Canada when her son’s coaches informed him 90 minutes before the scheduled start that three qualifiers had scratched, giving him a berth in the last of three rows of 10 racers scheduled to set off at 10 a.m.

Yeah, right, he thought. Nice joke. I guess I deserve that after Saturday’s gaffe.

Not until Eisenbichler showed up with a bib in his hand did Bailey believe.

At 8:38, he sent a quick text to Kendra, who was leisurely packing her car, preparing to swing by the 10th Mountain Lodge to bid her brother adieu before returning to Portland.

Kendra flipped open her phone and read:

“BOOOYAHHHHH!

“bib #25”

“I yelled out the window, ‘He’s gonna race!’ and we booked it on over here as fast as we could,” Kendra said from the snowy top of a hill near the lodge as her brother skied the first of five laps Sunday morning.

Lowell whizzed past in a train of skiers amid raucous whoops and hollers and the clanging of Kendra’s cowbell, an instrument she earned as a cross country skier at the 2000 Junior Olympics. An aunt and uncle from Ohio had stayed behind as well and they joined the chorus of Bailey boosters.

He missed one shot in his first prone stage and another in his first standing, moving up from 25th to the high teens.

A week ago in Presque Isle’s pursuit race, Bailey entered the final shooting stage in 30th, shot clean and finished 16th.

“If you can clean that last stage,” he said, “crazy things happen.”

One final climb up the hill that by week’s end skiers were calling Mt. Everest. One final loop with cheers in his ears and competitors in his shadow. Then a tumble across the finish, and a long, long hug.

“I was just happy to be on the starting line,” he said. “I just told myself, do what you can with what you have, with what you’re given.”

Ninth place paid $675 in prize money. Multiply that by ten thousand, and you come close to what it meant for Bailey, the Maine Winter Sports Center, the St. John Valley and the whole of USA Biathlon.

“I can’t think of a better feeling,” Bailey said. “I’m on cloud nine right now. It’s been a long road.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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