PRESQUE ISLE — On a day when the wind chill hovered close to or below zero, Mark Shea wouldn’t have been anywhere else. Neither would Megan Miller.
Or Tom Chasse. Or Kenneth Long. Or Murray Wylie.
They were among 492 volunteers who helped pull off the recent IBU Biathlon Youth/Junior World Championships at the Nordic Heritage Center. For eight days, most in frigid conditions, the folks in the red or white jackets and bomber hats directed fans, kept time, swept the mats at the shooting range, groomed trails or served food.
Shea and Miller, both from Caribou, were part of spectator services, standing in the wind-punished bleachers with the fans, passing out American flags, directing people to the seats, teaching middle school students when to cheer (not while the biathlete is shooting) and who to cheer for (everyone), and trying to engage fans from other countries in conversation.
“You learn to overcome the language barriers,’’ said Shea, who took time off from his job as the coordinator at Drug-Free Communities in Aroostook County.
Chasse, Long and Wylie were part of the stadium crew, and their job last Sunday was to raise the flags during the medal ceremonies. Perhaps no one in the stadium was prouder of what they were doing than those three, especially Wylie, who is from Nova Scotia. He’s the president of Biathlon Canada, and when Sarah Beaudry of Canada came from 2:37 back to take third in the women’s youth 10-kilometer pursuit, he got to raise the Canadian flag.
“What we do is important,’’ said Chasse, who lives in Presque Isle. “But the whole stadium is quite important.’’
Jane Towle was pleased to hear Chasse’s comment. As event director, she knows how important each volunteer is to the success of the championships.
“There are so many pieces to this,’’ she said. “You miss one, it can be disastrous, it can ripple. I lose sleep as we approach this.’’
SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY
Hosting one of the International Biathlon Union’s big events is no easy task. There are only nine World Cup events each year, plus world championships. Aroostook County, with sites in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, has held three World Cup events and two youth/junior world championships since 2004 and is scheduled for another World Cup in 2016.
The difference between running such a big event here and in Europe is that no one gets paid for helping out in Aroostook County.
“There are hundreds of volunteers who fill critical roles,’’ said Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center. “The thing that separates Aroostook County events from others around the world is that our organizing committees are entirely volunteer.
“The Europeans would also tell you that we’re as good, if not better, than any other organizing committee. The volunteers, their willingness to open themselves up to all the learning that’s required to be good at this and to commit to whatever it takes to be the best, is recognized and appreciated by the IBU.’’
Towle, who took a year off from her job as a realtor in Presque Isle, knows this.
“We’re lucky we have the best of the best,’’ she said. “But it is difficult because it is all volunteers. We rely on the volunteers’ spirit of community. Business leaders are involved, and that’s important because they bring in more people.
“But the challenges of running an organization with nearly 500 volunteers are enormous because what’s your leverage? Other than their goodwill, their work ethic, their sense of putting their name on something that belongs to them – and that’s what we have – it’s not like running a business with 500 employees.’’
Towle said the races succeed in Aroostook County – and they continue to receive high grades from participants, visitors and IBU officials – because of the volunteers. They’re friendly and knowledgeable and understand what events like this mean to their community, especially economically.
Towle said the organizing committee booked 6,000 bed nights for visiting teams and officials at local hotels.
“The math on that is enormous,’’ she said. “What we try to impress upon folks is that the economic impact immediately is huge. There’s hotels, food, convenience stores, retail, all the things you’d spend money on.’’
Shepard said this year’s youth/junior world championships – which bring in a smaller crowd than World Cup events – would pump $4.4 million into the local economy. That’s up from the $2.5 million brought in during the 2006 youth/junior worlds.
The World Cup events, according to Shepard, have had a greater impact: $5.2 million in 2004, when Fort Kent hosted; and $18 million in 2011, when World Cup events were held in both Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
Towle stressed that the economic impact goes far beyond the two weeks or so that the competitors are here.
“The economics of this reach into the secondary level and tertiary levels for months to come,’’ she said. For example, she said, a restaurant or store that did well during the competition might buy a new car or spend money on improvements. “They say that money moves around our economy for more than two years because of a season like this,’’ she said.
A PRODUCTIVE YEAR
Planning for the youth/junior world championships began 18 months ago. An organizing committee was formed and, Towle said, “we went into full swing a year ago.’’
That began with a trip to Obertilliach, Austria, for last year’s youth/junior world championships. Towle said it was an invaluable experience.
“We learned how to be efficient,’’ she said. “We learned how to save money.’’
Towle said there is no shortage of volunteers. People first go to the event’s website and sign up to volunteer, noting which areas they are interested in. Some, such as timers or people who work the course or range, need certification before they can work an IBU event.
Greg Smith, a broccoli farmer in Presque Isle, was the chief of timing at the youth/junior worlds. He once worked on the range but moved to timing because, he joked, “it’s inside and it’s warm.’’
But he has a huge job and needs certification. He is responsible for not only the start and finish, but each timed checkpoint on the course. As he said, if the timing is off just a bit “it would be awfully hard to ask a skier to go out and do it again because we didn’t get his time.’’
He became involved in the first World Cup event in 2004 and has returned each time, along with a familiar crew.
“There’s the chief of timing, chief of course, chief of range, chief of stadium,’’ he said. “We’re the same group that’s done it on all of the major ones. It’s like, ‘If you’re going to do it, I’ll do it again.’
“It’s a group that you know has the experience and the relationship to work.’’
It can be stressful, said Smith. But, he added, “On the last day, when it went with very few hiccups and you see the response from the athletes and the IBU, well, it’s very gratifying.’’
Not all volunteers need certification. It helps that they like biathlon. “It’s the sport that brings us together,’’ said flag raiser Murray.
But most just want to be part of the event.
“It takes so many people to put on an event like this,’’ said Caribou’s Shea, who had worked on course and equipment check (rifles) in previous events. “Each little part is for the greater good. It’s part of the whole.
“And even though it’s cold, it’s fun to be out here.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: