PRESQUE ISLE — There was really just one way to describe the opening day of the IBU Biathlon Youth/Junior World Championships on Friday at the Nordic Heritage Center: Brrrrrrrrrr.
Teams from 29 countries had descended on Aroostook County, bringing more than 300 athletes along with 100-plus coaches and support members, to determine who might become the sport’s next Olympic stars.
And everyone froze.
Races began at 10 a.m., with the temperature at 14 degrees and the wind chill at minus-2.
It didn’t get much warmer, but it was a great day of competition, especially for the U.S. team in the unique sport of biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with target shooting.
New Hampshire’s Sean Doherty became the first American to win a biathlon gold medal on U.S. soil when he edged Germany’s Marco Gross by 1.7 seconds to win the youth men’s 7.5-kilometer sprint.
And Maddie Phaneuf of Old Forge, N.Y., had the only clean shooting day to finish fourth in the youth women’s 6-kilometer sprint, which was won by Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi.
But trigger fingers froze. Toes lost feeling. Hats, scarves, mittens, coats couldn’t keep anyone warm. Cowbells, a staple of any biathlon event in Europe, were mostly silent. One was even lost in the snow.
“It was extremely cold,” said Germany’s Anna Weidel, who finished second in the youth women’s 6-kilometer sprint. “My fingers were frozen and I think I had to concentrate to shoot good.”
Phaneuf, who trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Aroostook County, said, “It was so cold, toes are now just thawing out.”
That was about 45 minutes after the race.
“All my toes and part of my fingers were frozen solid,” she said. “I’m surprised I could even shoot, because I couldn’t feel the trigger at all.”
Some folks didn’t seem to mind.
Doherty, who competed a week ago in the men’s relay at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, said he preferred the cold to the 50 degrees and slushy snow he skied on in Sochi.
“The conditions here are so fast,” he said. “This is prime snow, right here.”
And Jonas Brandt, the spokesman of sorts for a group of parents from Sweden who came to watch their children compete, said, “It feels like this is our heritage. It feels like it is back home. It’s a bit more windy. But we’re quite well-dressed and used to this weather.’’
Of course, he spoke as the parents sought shelter from the biting wind by huddling under the bleachers.
Those who stayed in the stands were there for good reasons.
Several members of the Maine Winter Sports Center came to cheer on their friends. Zoe Chace-Donahue, a post-graduate from Freeport who is heading to Bates College, even wore her lucky furry cow hat. Abby Popenoe of Portland wore a purple wig. Austin Huneck of Albany, N.Y., striped his face red and white and waved a huge American flag.
“Just trying to be as supportive as possible,” he said.
It was noticeable. As were their loud cheers.
“It definitely gave you motivation,” said Mikaela Paluszek, a Farmington, N.H., native who trains with them.
“And,” said Phaneuf, “it was a little funny.”
This is the second time the Nordic Heritage Center has hosted a youth/junior world championship. There also have been two World Cup events in Fort Kent and one here. Each time, schools in the area have bused in students not only to watch but to cheer for all of the athletes.
On Friday morning, sixth-graders from nearby Caribou held up handmade signs, one for each country. For social studies, they had to learn a little bit about the countries for which they cheered.
“They might learn the national anthem,” said Ryan Deprey, one of the teachers watching the Caribou students. “Or its imports or exports. Something that they wouldn’t otherwise know.”
They also had to learn a phrase – either “Go, go, go!” or “Ski fast!” – to cheer on athletes in their language.
“I have Russia,” said Alex Bouchard. “But it’s kind of difficult to say ‘Go, go, go’ in Russian. So I haven’t.”
Jacob Berkoski, meanwhile, had Poland. He held his mini-flag. “But I’m cheering for Sweden,” he said. “I am Swedish.”
If the students hadn’t been at the championships, they said, they would have been in social studies class. So they thought it was a pretty good switch.
“It’s fun,” said Taylor Skidgel. “But it is really cold.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: