Aroostook County produces an abundant variety of potatoes. Among the yearly crop is Red Norland, Yukon Gold, French Fingerling and the Classic Russet.

Missing from Maine’s largest and most rural county, however, is the Russell Currier Couch Potato.

That’s how Chris Currier described his 13-year-old son a decade ago, before the nascent Maine Winter Sports Center provided an alternative lifestyle to junk food and video games.

Now 23, Russell Currier has risen from his Stockholm farmhouse to the highest ranks of his sport, biathlon. He competes on the World Cup tour, which will make its second stop in Maine this winter.

Unlike in 2004, when the World Cup made a highly successful debut in Fort Kent, the state will host two such events on successive weekends, the first in Presque Isle in early February and the second the following Thursday through Sunday in Fort Kent.

“It would be awesome and even downright convenient for me to compete in those races,” Currier wrote in an e-mail from Europe, where he has been involved in the first three World Cup events, in Sweden, Austria and Slovenia.

Currier, a graduate of Caribou High, is one of the two Maine natives to rise through MWSC ranks to the World Cup. The other, Yarmouth native Walt Shepard, retired from biathlon and is completing his studies at Bowdoin College.

Each had hopes of qualifying for the Vancouver Olympics. Each fell short.

“I wanted a spot on the Olympic team more than anything,” Currier wrote. “The best I can do now is forget about it.”

Biathlon is the curious sport that marries Nordic skiing to rifle marksmanship. Athletes ski around a course in stages, pausing at predetermined distances to shoot at five targets. Sometimes they stand when they shoot; other times they lie on their bellies.

Short races, called sprints, involve only two rounds of shooting. Long races have four. Missed shots mean penalties, either in time (each miss adds one minute) or in distance (you ski a short loop for each miss).

In Europe, biathlon is the most popular winter spectator sport, with extensive television coverage, packed stadiums and fans lining the courses.

“I’ve been at biathlons where they were stacked eight deep the entire 10K,” said Roger Knight, who runs Boulder Nordic Sport, a ski shop in Portland. “It’s nuts. They’ll camp out overnight to get a good spot.”

Tim Burke, who grew up in New York and trained for a time in Fort Kent, is the best U.S. biathlete. Last winter he shocked the establishment by rising to first place in World Cup standings — the first American to do so.

“There are commercials in Germany with him and his girlfriend grocery shopping,” said Knight, referring to Andrea Henkel, a two-time Olympic gold medalist from that country. “Here I could walk him down the street and no one would know who he is, not even the skiers.”

If healthy, Burke and Henkel will certainly be in Presque Isle and Fort Kent in February. Currier may not.

Based on their results, the Americans will have starting slots for five men, and three or four for women. Burke and fellow New Yorker and MWSC alum Lowell Bailey will be on the squad.

The remaining three men’s slots are up for grabs among Currier, Jay Hakkinen of Alaska, Jeremy Teela of Utah, Leif Nordgren of Minnesota and the three athletes who emerge from senior team trials going on through Wednesday at Mt. Itasca in Minnesota.

Hakkinen and Teela have extensive Olympic experience. Nordgren, two years younger than Currier, scored World Cup points by finishing 35th in a sprint in Sweden earlier this month.

Two U.S. women have scored World Cup points this winter, meaning a top-40 finish: Sara Studebaker of Idaho and Laura Spector of Lenox, Mass.

“It would be wonderful to have Russell on the team up there,” said Max Cobb, executive director of U.S. Biathlon, from its headquarters at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. “But of course we have to give the positions to the people who are performing best on the World Cup.”

Cobb said Currier already has the engine and speed to succeed. He skis as fast as Burke and Bailey.

“His skiing is definitely at a World Cup level, and that’s important to us,” Cobb said. “That’s rare, and we need people who, when they shoot clean, are definitely going to be in the top 10, if not the podium.”

Shooting clean means hitting every target. After an impressive trials performance in November elevated him to the World Cup team, Currier faltered on the big stage in Europe, entering the weekend with a 47 percent shooting percentage. The rifle remains a challenge.

“Shooting has always been a struggle for me and will probably remain a weak point for this season as well,” wrote Currier, whose best World Cup finish was 80th — hitting 7 of 10 targets — in a 10K sprint in Sweden earlier this month. “I’m perfectly capable of taking a good shot but not always able to do so when I need to. In order to hang with the best in the world, you need to be able to hit targets on demand. That’s what I’m striving for.”

Currier was 16 when the 2004 World Cup in Fort Kent attracted 20,000 spectators over four days of competition and reached a television audience of 50 million, most of it in Europe. While his participation this time around would add another layer of local excitement, the bigger picture is the enormous boost to the Aroostook economy provided by these two events and an anticipated European television audience of 120 million.

“This is not just a sports story,” said Andy Shepard, founder and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center, and Walt’s dad. “This is a story that’s trying to change the fortunes and the future of the people of central and northern Maine. … If you remember, at its heart, the Maine Winter Sports Center is an economic development company.”

The World Cup schedule originally called for events in Fort Kent and Lake Placid, N.Y., but the latter venue isn’t up to international standards, so Presque Isle, which hosted the 2006 junior world championships, moved into the picture.

“We’re expecting 120 million TV viewers and 35,000 spectators between the two venues,” Shepard said. “That’s a big deal. That’s the largest sporting event ever held in the state of Maine.” 

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

[email protected]