CARIBOU — “Have you seen him?’’
“Has he raced yet?’’
Slowly they filed into the Options RTO store on Sweden Street, gathering around a group of four televisions showing the 10-kilometer biathlon sprint at the Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia – the 10K sprint that included Russell Currier, friend to many in the crowd, known to all of them.
Everyone wanted a glimpse. “Has he started?”
Currier, a 26-year-old from nearby Stockholm, was competing in his first Olympics. He is the only Maine native competing in the Olympics this year.
Currier finished 61st with a time of 26:58.5 in the event that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting.
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway missed one target before finishing in 24 minutes, 33.5 seconds to capture his seventh career Olympic gold medal and 12th overall. Dominik Landertinger of Austria finished 1.3 seconds behind to take silver, and Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic won bronze, trailing Bjoerndalen by 5.7 seconds. Tim Burke, who like Currier trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Caribou, was the top American, in 19th place, while Lowell Bailey, who also trains at the sports center, was 35th.
Currier had four penalties – he missed four of his first five targets while shooting in the prone position and each miss added a 150-meter penalty lap to his time – and missed qualifying for Monday’s sprint race by one spot. But that did little to diminish the enthusiasm that was tangible among the people watching.
As Currier, one of the final competitors to finish the race, was shown approaching the finish line – “There’s Russell,’’ someone said. “He just said Russell’s name” – the crowd clapped and cheered as hard as if he had won a medal.
“He’s just getting warmed up,” said Catherine Packard, who knows Currier’s parents, Chris and Debbie, and whose daughter, Danni Anderson, is a close friend of Currier’s and skied with him at the Maine Winter Sports Center.
The showing of the race coincided with the Caribou Downtown Ski Festival, the town’s annual cross-country ski racing festival for all ages. It was not by accident.
Kathy Mazzuchelli, the head of the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department, said that while the festival had been planned for a while, “we’re doing it to honor Russell as well. He started out doing things like this. It’s kind of fun to see the little kids here, and to see Russell where he is.”
And that’s why people came to watch, to see one of their own compete on the world’s biggest stage for his sport.
“You know, Aroostook County is just one really big small town,” said Jemelie Duepo of Woodland, who brought her children to ski but didn’t want to miss Currier’s race. “I grew up in Stockholm, just down the road from Russell. He skied with my younger siblings.
“This is amazing, isn’t it? It’s great that we all get to come here and watch this.’’
When the Olympic race began at 9:30 a.m., there were about 40 or so people crowded into the shop to watch, craning their necks to see the screens. Currier, wearing bib No. 87, was one of the final starters. But they also cheered for fellow Americans and Maine Winter Sports Center athletes Bailey and Burke. When Burke hit all five of his targets, they pumped fists and cheered.
Then the local racing began – right in front of the store, with snow piled and groomed Friday night over all of Sweden Street – and many people had to leave. But they kept track.
Every now and then someone would poke in and ask if Russell had raced yet. Some people peeked through the store window, trying to see where the race was at that point.
Packard, wearing a No. 87 bib on her red World Junior Biathlon Championships jacket, said there was no place she would rather be.
“I’m here because Russell had a sixth-place finish in a sprint a few years back,” she said. “Before anything else, all the other events going on, I wanted to see this race. Before this (opportunity) came up, I was asking, ‘What’s happening? Where’s the party? Where are we watching?’ ”
Most people here said they would have been watching it at home, either on their computer or television. They knew a tape-delayed broadcast was scheduled to be on NBC’s afternoon telecast, but didn’t want to miss the chance to see it live.
Currier appeared briefly as he was preparing for his prone shooting. But the telecast switched to a Canadian biathlete, prompting many groans.
Then, as the camera panned away, Sarah Dominick of Stockholm said: “He’s getting up. I know that skate anywhere.”
Dominick has known Currier since he was about 13, “when he didn’t want to ski at all. He was into watching TV and riding his four-wheeler.’’
Now, she said, “it’s pretty exciting how much impact his success has had on our community, and the young people in particular.’’
That was evident in the town races, as middle schoolers and younger skiers sprinted along Sweden Street, with proud parents and friends watching, taking photos, in chilling temperatures.
Currier missed qualifying for Monday’s pursuit race by one spot. The top 60 qualified. He will race again in the 20K individual at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Those who know Currier best can take heart in the quality of his skiing on Saturday.
“He skied fast,’’ said Packard. “And that’s important.’’
Max Cobb, the CEO and president of U.S. Biathlon, put it this way in an email: “He was skiing very fast.’’
And his shooting has always been the weakest part of his game. But he did hit all five targets from the standing position, which was impressive.
“It was a solid effort,’’ said Dominick. “I’m sure he’s frustrated for missing four (from the prone position). I’m sure he’s disappointed. When he shoots clean, he has a chance to be top 10.’’
Those watching said nerves may have had something to do with his misses. “There’s a lot of excitement and it’s easy to have little mistakes,’’ said Dominick.
But Currier didn’t seem too disappointed. In a press release, he said, “It wasn’t the race I was hoping for today, but at the end of the day it’s still the Olympics and it’s great just to be here.’’
Just as it was great to be watching him from home.
“We’re here because we’re all very committed to Russell,’’ said Duepo. “He represents Aroostook County and we appreciate that very much.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: