FORT KENT – Now that the World Cup biathlon tour has moved on to Russia for the World Championships, Aroostook County is once again a winter playground for sled dogs and snowmobiles.

But organizers of the two weeks of competition combining cross-country skiing with precision marksmanship believe their sport has truly taken hold in Maine’s most northern and rural county, which could soon be home to an Olympic Training Center.

European television executives told Andy Shepard of the Maine Winter Sports Center that the events, held earlier this month in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, were a big hit.

Full stadiums, well-designed trails and knowledgeable spectators cheering for athletes from all countries “made for great racing and great TV,” Shepard reported.

Sara Studebaker of Idaho enjoyed the best result of her career — 14th — in Presque Isle. Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, N.Y., did likewise in Fort Kent, breaking into the top 10 for the first time on a day he didn’t expect to race because he was the third alternate.

Frigid temperatures, a snowstorm and Super Bowl Sunday all conspired to keep crowds lower than pre-event estimates, but the thousands of spectators who came out to watch did so with gusto. Last Sunday’s mass start races in Fort Kent drew 6.5 million German television viewers — a market share of 25 percent surpassed only by Olympic and World Championship biathlon. Saturday’s pursuit races drew 5.5 million viewers.

The time difference meant the races in North America could be broadcast live in central Europe’s prime evening hours.

“We wanted to make sure European TV had a good product, and the crowd size and energy are critical to that,” Shepard said. “I don’t know what the crowd size was, but it was big enough to have the impact we were looking for.”

German and Norwegian television each ran segments about Aroostook County culture and pastimes, similar to the old “Up Close and Personal” bits pioneered by ABC’s Olympic coverage. Shepard hopes that may translate into many more European visitors choosing northern Maine as a tourist destination.

As for biathlon, Shepard’s next target is already in sight: getting Fort Kent designated as an Olympic Training Center similar to those in Lake Placid and in Colorado Springs, Colo.

To achieve OTC status, certain standards must be met. You need a world-class facility, a meal plan and access to top-notch medical care. Fort Kent has all that. What it lacked, until January, was athlete housing.

Enter Phyllis Jalbert.

Jalbert grew up in Fort Kent and became successful in New York City real estate. She’s a registered Maine Guide who owns homes in Brooklyn and North Yarmouth and serves on the board of USA Biathlon. At the first World Cup in Fort Kent in 2004, it was Jalbert who bid a record $10,100 for a pair of golden skis donated by Norway’s acclaimed Ole Einar Bjorndalen, a six-time Olympic gold medalist.

That money went to the Maine Winter Sports Center to establish a youth skiing program in Fort Kent.

“I love winter sports and I love to get the children outside, enjoying the blast of cold air,” said Jalbert, now 65, who still skis regularly. “I just feel like this is somewhere I can give back to the town I love so dearly. It’s a great little town.”

Upon learning of the housing problem, Jalbert offered a simple solution. Her speciality is renovating old homes.

Last March, while in Fort Kent as sponsor of the Willard Jalbert 60-mile Can Am dog sled race (named for her father), she picked out a house, bought it and called a friend, designer Heidi Gerquest of Freeport.

“She has done a bunch of projects for me, and she offered her services pro bono,” Jalbert said. “And I don’t do projects like this without her. It’s too much. I can’t make all these design decisions.”

The result of their remodeling was on display last weekend in Fort Kent, at the aptly named Phyllis Jalbert Athlete Residence in the midst of a neighborhood between Main Street and the Lonesome Pines Ski Area.

Two biathletes on the Maine Winter Sports Center team, Katrina Howe, a University of Vermont graduate who grew up in Gilford, N.H., and Andrea Mayo, a Fort Kent High graduate from nearby Soldier Pond, have moved into the house Jalbert is handing over to the winter sports center for the yearly lease of one dollar.

With five bedrooms and three baths, the place sleeps nine comfortably. There are dual refrigerators, tasteful furnishings and even interlocking Olympic rings painted on a wall of the walk-in basement, which doubles as a study area.

“It is another example of the remarkable support the Maine Winter Sports Center has in the County,” Shepard said. “It’s also an example of the kind of selflessness and generosity that exists in the County.”

“For us, it’s definitely about being able to have quiet space,” Howe said while giving a visitor a tour of the new digs.

“Your own space,” chimed in Mayo.

“And not sharing it with everyone who likes to ski,” Howe said.

Equally as important as privacy, they said, was community. Being part of the neighborhood. Not feeling isolated in the lodge.

“This allows us to continue to attract some of the top athletes in the country,” Shepard said. “It also helps with our mission of creating a generation of responsible, accountable young men and women. Because when they move into this place, they realize this is not a fraternity house. This is not a dormitory. The responsibility with living in this house is enormous, and the really neat thing is, the athletes we go after get it. They understand that.”

Shepard said he plans to apply to the U.S. Olympic Committee this spring to designate Fort Kent as THE Olympic Training Center for biathlon. Presque Isle could fulfill a similar role for cross-country skiing.

If successful, the transition could occur as early as this summer.

“I think they view this facility pretty favorably, as they do with Presque Isle,” Shepard said of the USOC. “I think they’ve been impressed with what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

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

[email protected]

 


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