Monday, March 10, 2014
PRESQUE ISLE — Sarah Becker has a purpose for taking a year off before college, and her smile throughout a ski practice in temperatures that warmed up toward double digits was genuine.
Annelies Cook is one of five athletes from the Maine Winter Sports Center on the 10 person U.S. Biathlon team at the Olympics.
2013 File Photo/The Associated Press
Will Sweetser, director of competitive programs at the Maine Winter Sports Center, leads athletes through a workout recently in a gym in Caribou. The center also has competition sites in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
“I want to take my skiing to the next level, I want to ski in college,’’ said Becker, a Yarmouth High graduate now training at the Maine Winter Sports Center. “I want to see where skiing can take me. And to be training here has been incredibly beneficial. Most high school skiers train on their own. Here, we have world-class coaching and world-class facilities.’’
At least for now.
The Maine Winter Sports Center, headquartered in Caribou with competition sites in Fort Kent (10th Mountain Ski Center) and Presque Isle (Nordic Heritage Ski Center), must raise a minimum of $550,000 before April 30 to continue operations, after the Libra Foundation announced last week it would end its funding of the center. The center last year received $1.3 million of its $1.7 million in revenue from Libra, a Portland-based philanthropic foundation.
Through its Olympic Development Program, the center has produced six athletes competing in the Sochi Olympics – one cross-country skier and five biathlon competitors, including Maine’s own Russell Currier – but also considers its local focus a crucial part of its overall mission. It has a youth development program (about 30 participants this year) and the Healthy Hometowns program, in which families throughout the state can lease ski and bike equipment for the season for small fees.
Andy Shepard, the president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center, quickly launched a campaign to raise the money after learning of Libra’s decision last week. He hopes to maintain the facilities, services and programs the center has provided since 1999 – from training world-class athletes to introducing hundreds of local children to the sports and promoting healthy lifestyles – but is not sure from where it will come.
Asked if he thought he could do it, he didn’t mince words: “I have to. Failure is not an option.’’
He is reaching out not only to communities in Aroostook County and across Maine, but well beyond the state’s borders.
“I’m looking for anyone who shares the values of the Maine Winter Sports Center, that understands and recognizes the impact that it is having, especially in rural communities, and wants to see that continue,’’ said Shepard, who earns about $140,000 per year.
MORE THAN PRODUCING OLYMPIANS
The Maine Winter Sports Center is regarded as one of the finest biathlon training centers in the United States.
“Arguably, it’s the only full-service development center in the country,’’ said Will Sweetser, director of competition programs at the center. “We’re the only program that runs youth to Olympic development programs for biathlon. And we’ve got a track record that’s hard to argue with.’’
Over the years the center has produced 13 U.S. Olympians, including five on this year’s 10-person U.S. Biathlon team. Along with Currier – who is from nearby Stockholm and the first Mainer to go through the entire development program – are Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, Lanny Barnes and Annelies Cook. Kris Freeman of the U.S. men’s cross-country team is also a product of the center. There are fewer than 10 athletes in the Olympic Development Program.
The junior development program has about 50 participants ages 11 to 15 – each of whom pays a fee of $1,300 per year – and focuses on the basics. The junior racing team, for those ages 15 to 20, has about 30 participants and the $2,500 fee covers 25 days of camp, travel to out-of-state competitions and uniforms. They are either from a local high school, like Fort Fairfield sophomore Lance McKenney (one of the top 16- to 17-year-old skiers in the nation), or live in a community house, like Becker.
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Lowell Bailey competes in the 2011 Biathlon World Cup in Presque Isle, a Maine Winter Sports Center event that boosted the local economy.
2011 File Photo/The Associated Press
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Andy Shepard, CEO and president of the Maine Winter Sports Center
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Russell Currier of Stockholm competes in a past biathlon championship held by the Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent. Center officials emphasize that their purpose goes beyond training world-class athletes to benefiting communities and encouraging young athletes.
2007 Press Herald File Photo/John Patriquin