As a 13-year-old from Cumberland, Sam Tarling accompanied his father to Rumford watch the 2004 U.S. cross country ski championships at the Chisholm Ski Club.

Seven years later, Tarling will be among the 400-plus competitors as the national championships return to Black Mountain, which now has wider trails, a larger stadium area and a new two-story timing building.

Tarling had to travel to Alaska the past two winters for the nationals. This year and next he’ll be right at home in Rumford as he attempts to qualify for under-23 international competition.

“It’s a pretty big event, as big as they get for the United States,” said Tarling, now a 20-year-old sophomore at Dartmouth College. “So it’s definitely great to have it so close to home.”

Competition begins Sunday and continues Tuesday, Thursday and next Saturday. The first two days of racing involve classical technique; the second two are freestyle, or skate, races. Each discipline includes a sprint and a distance race.

As a junior skier, Tarling participated in world championships in Estonia in 2008 and Germany last winter. He’s also a veteran of the Junior Olympics.

Dartmouth teammate and fellow Mainer Nils Koons of Sidney will also compete, as will a host of former Maine high school standouts, including current collegians Graham Egan and Emily Attwood (both of Middlebury and Cape Elizabeth), Lucy Garrec (Vermont and Freeport), Clare Egan (New Hampshire and Cape Elizabeth), Spencer Eusden (Bowdoin and Oxford Hills) and Welly Ramsey (UMaine-Presque Isle and New Sharon).

“I think Alaska discouraged a lot of skiers because it was so far,” said Egan, a senior at Middlebury. “Most of the U.S. ski team will be there, and most of everyone else in the country who wants to be good.”

Three of the country’s top Nordic skiers — Kris Freeman, Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall — will be absent because they are competing in the Tour de Ski, an event held in Germany and Italy and modeled after cycling’s Tour de France.

Although age eligible, Egan isn’t considering qualifying for the junior world or U-23 championships.

“I’m more focused on the college races,” he said. “For a lot of people, this is like the start of the season. But for people who are trying to make (international) teams, this is the middle of the season.”

For example, Tarling already has raced in Finland, Quebec, Vermont and New Hampshire this winter, and he also trained in Aroostook County.

Waynflete graduate Adele Espy of Freeport trained with Tarling in Finland but said she isn’t yet ready to race as she recovers from illness.

This marks the fourth time Chisholm has hosted the national championships, and first since Black Mountain upgraded its facilities to meet international standards.

Roger Arsenault, chair of the organizing committee, said the stadium can now accommodate a mass start of 250 skiers and the wider trails will allow five athletes to ski abreast.

“In the last eight to 10 weeks we blasted over 8,000 cubic feet of ledge and hauled in 3,000 yards of fill,” Arsenault said. “It’s quite a change.”

In addition to the new timing facility, the old lodge has been converted to a waxing building with 21 separate stalls.

“This is basically at an international level as far as sophistication goes,” Arsenault said, “and our volunteers are very seasoned.”

Athletes, coaches and parents are filling rooms from Wilton to Bethel, Arsenault said. The economic impact of the event is likely to fall somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million to western Maine, according to event spokesman Craig Zurhorst.

Tarling remembers entering his first Eastern Cup event at Black Mountain as a seventh-grader and later as a high school freshman at Greely, competing in the Class B state championships.

“I’ve had my share of racing up High School Hill,” he said of the Black Mountain’s infamous incline. “I think it’s a good course for me. It’s hilly and challenging and I like to climb.”

With his graduation from the junior level, however, he understands the challenge ahead of him.

“If I qualify for a team, that’s great,” Tarling said. “If not, I can focus on schoolwork and racing the (college) carnivals.”

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]