STOCKHOLM — Growing up, there was never any indication that Russell Currier would become a world-class athlete.
He wasn’t overly athletic. He liked playing video games. He loved watching “The Simpsons.”
“They were on the Canadian channel after school,” said his older sister Lauren Walker. “So we taped them. Then one time, for two days in a row, we sat in the living room and watched hours and hours of ‘The Simpsons.’
“Finally our dad came in and told us to get outside.”
Good thing. Otherwise, Currier might not be carrying Maine’s hope for an Olympic medal in Sochi, Russia.
The 26-year-old Currier, a 2006 graduate of Caribou High School, is making his first appearance in the Winter Olympics, competing for the U.S. men’s biathlon team. He is the only Maine native to earn a berth in the Sochi Olympics.
Currier will compete in at least three events: the 10-kilometer sprint on Feb. 8 (9:30 a.m. EST), the 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Feb. 10 (10 a.m.) and the 20-kilometer individual on Feb. 13 (9 a.m.). He could be added to the relay.
Folks in Aroostook County are understandably proud.
“Oh yeah,” said Bob Sprague, a retired ski coach and teacher from Caribou High. “He isn’t just this kid from Stockholm, he isn’t just this kid who went to Caribou, he isn’t just this kid from The County. He’s from Maine. It’s just inspiring to see what he has done.”
Go anywhere in the small towns that surround his hometown and you’re bound to run into someone who knows Currier, or his family. They were so excited when he was named to the Olympic team that people in Stockholm and surrounding towns held a dinner to raise money so his parents, Chris and Debbie, could go to Sochi and watch him in the Olympics. The dinner raised nearly $6,000, with total donations rising to nearly $10,000.
People are planning “watch parties” to see him compete.
“Every town around here claims him,” said his father, Chris Currier, from their toasty warm home on a subzero morning. “Caribou, Fort Kent, New Sweden, everywhere. They all claim him.”
Why not? His journey from a town of fewer than 300 to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team has made Currier a role model for the children of Aroostook County and beyond.
“Well,” said Sprague, his voice cracking and eyes tearing at times as he spoke about Currier, “not just kids. Everyone. It’s like, if Russell can do that, well, I have my own goals. I want to be the best I can be. That’s what Russell has done.”
‘ALL OF A SUDDEN, HE HAD A PASSION’
Biathlon is a sport that combines Nordic skiing with target shooting.
Currier was well versed in the second part of that equation before he ever got on skis. “By the time he was 4 or 5 he was hunting and fishing,” said Chris Currier. “It’s just in his genes, in his blood, I guess. He still looks forward to coming home for bird season and deer season.”
And then one day he was introduced to skis. The Maine Winter Sports Center, headquartered in Caribou with world-class training facilities in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, had just started its Healthy Hometowns program for towns across the state. Part of it includes ski rentals to local schools.
Currier was part of the first group of children at the Stockholm Elementary School to receive skis. Coaches put on clinics, teaching the students how to ski. He was in the fifth grade.
It took him awhile to figure it out, but when he did, he became a different person, said his mother, Debbie Currier.
“I remember he was in the eighth grade and he asked (a Winter Sports Center coach) what it took for other people to be good at this,” said Debbie Currier. “He said, ‘Well, if that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it.’
“Pretty soon he was getting up at 5 in the morning to go skiing before he went to school. All of a sudden, he had a passion for all the exercise and food that he wouldn’t touch before. It seemed like he realized he liked (skiing) and he could be good at it.”
During the winter he would ski to school on the trails behind his parents’ home. Students were allowed to ski during recess. And he took his training to another level.
“Russell’s singular strength is his willingness to do the training, his actual love of doing the training,” said Will Sweetser, one of his first coaches at the Maine Winter Sports Center. “It’s hard to convince people to train 1,000 hours a year. Turns out that’s tough.
“But at age 14 we knew he was willing to do the training.”
He skied when he could, ran when he had to. He rode his mountain bike on the trails. He roller-skied through all kinds of weather.
“You watched him and you knew,” said Sprague. “I can remember this one cold downpour one October. It was a downpour and I was coming from Madawaska Lake into Stockholm. And as I turned the corner, there was Russell, roller-skiing out to (Route) 161. It was a downpour. Nothing was going to stop him.”
“Ninety degrees, 100, humid, weather when everyone else is looking to stay under a tree, he’s out there running, or on roller skis,” said his father, Chris.
That’s because, said a high school teammate, Currier knew where that path could lead him.
“He became committed to what he was doing,” said Joey Bard, a friend who has known Currier since the seventh grade. “He wanted to make the Olympics since he was a freshman in high school.”
‘HE WASN’T LIKE THE REST OF US’
Currier competed for the Caribou High team even as he traveled the world as a member of the Maine Winter Sports Center team. He began winning championships, both at the high school level and nationally. He was the junior national 10-kilometer cross country champion in 2006, the junior national biathlon champion in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Naturally gifted, he blossomed under the coaching of Per Nilsson at the Winter Sports Center. Nilsson is now the U.S. national team head coach.
“They made an immediate connection,” said Sweetser. “They were great for each other the way they communicated.”
His high school coaches used him as a role model: watch Russell ski, watch how he moves. He never asked to be a leader, but became one naturally. Dave Wakana, the athletic director at Caribou, said the high school team was as important to Currier as his Maine Winter Sports Center team.
“For Russell, it was probably a low-level event, but for his teammates, it was a big deal and he wanted to do well for them,” he said. “A month earlier, or a month later, he might be going to Europe. But he knew (the high school meet) was big and he wanted to win it for them.”
Besides, said his sister Lauren, being on the high school team gave him more practice time on the snow.
“He wasn’t like the rest of us,” she said. “We were there because we had friends on the team. He had a totally different focus. He wanted to put in the work.”
Currier said he can’t say there was any one thing that hooked him on biathlon or skiing.
“The intention was to keep going until I hit a wall of lack of interest or talent,”’ he said in an email from Italy after he qualified for the Olympic team. “I’m not uninterested in the sport and I like to think there is more room for talent.”
His athletic success rolled over into the classroom. Where he once struggled in school – “He just didn’t like it,” said his mother – Currier began getting good grades.
“He got in the National Honor Society,” said Chris Currier. “Before that we had to fight with him to do his homework.”
Andy Shepard, the CEO and president of the Maine Winter Sports Center, said Currier’s maturity was evident in all facets of his life.
“Russell took advantage of his opportunity when it was presented to him,” said Shepard. “He embraced it completely. I remember getting a newspaper clipping in the mail from the Caribou newspaper the fall of his freshman year. In it was the honor roll for Caribou.
“His name was underlined in green. There was no comment on it but he just wanted to make sure I knew he had made the honor roll. That was one of the most powerful and moving experiences I’ve had at the Maine Winter Sports Center.”
‘BOLD PROMISES’? NOT FROM THIS GUY
Russell Currier has seen all the reports regarding security and terrorist threats around the Sochi Games. He isn’t concerned.
“There’s almost a 100 percent chance everything will go over smoothly,” he said. “If I was really concerned about safety that much, I wouldn’t even bother exercising my driver’s license back home.”
He is more concerned about his parents’ travel plans. They seldom ventured beyond Maine and New Brunswick to watch him compete.
“A trip to Russia at any point can be difficult,” said Currier. “One on so short notice is sure to be a challenge. My parents don’t have much experience traveling, so this could be really interesting and I hope all goes over well.”
His parents have seen the reports as well.
“We’ll keep our eyes open the whole time we’re there,” said Debbie Currier. “Wouldn’t you?”
Beyond that, Currier is trying to keep as calm as possible.
“This is the last sport you would ever want to feel an additional pressure in,” he said.
Currier, who had two sixth-place finishes on the World Cup circuit two years ago, won’t make any predictions about how he will do.
“This isn’t the sport to make any bold promises in,” he said. “Anything can happen. All I can promise is that the men’s team will be doing everything in their power to ensure the best result possible. On an off day, none of us will crack the top 40. On a good day we could have a medal. This is the kind of consistency you can expect in this line of work.”
Lowell Bailey, one of five Maine Winter Sports Center products on the biathlon team, indicated in an email that Currier shouldn’t be so unassuming.
“Russell has been working towards an Olympic team berth for a long time,” said Bailey. “He is one of the hardest-working athletes out there. … He’s put in the time and he has the potential to make a splash at these Olympics.”
But Currier’s answer is typical of someone who has never boasted about his ability, who made sure he embraced the success of his high school teammates while he became one of the best biathletes in the nation. He doesn’t talk about himself much, even to his parents. His mother said she gets most of his news from his blog. “He pours his heart out in his blog,” said Debbie Currier.
And if you’re looking for any indication of Currier’s success at his parents’ home, you need to go upstairs. In one small back room, he has hung bibs from around the world – South Korea, Italy, Canada, Germany, France, the U.S. – from the ceiling. In another room – one decorated with posters from “The Simpsons” – dozens of medals won by Currier, from NorAm Cup races to U.S. nationals, from the Junior Olympics to the IBU Cup, hang from the arm of an exercise machine.
It’s a heavy cache, one that would strain most arms. But it is well hidden. That’s how he has always been. He simply doesn’t talk to anyone about his success. Or even his future.
At 26, he still has plenty of competitive years ahead of him. He has a flair for photography, but hasn’t thought much about life after the biathlon.
His sister Lauren, a nurse at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, is sure he’ll find success somewhere.
“I’m just glad he found something he likes,” she said. “I don’t picture him wearing a suit and going into an office. I don’t know what else he could do.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: