Tom Ross: Maine’s approach to Nordic skiing is on target | SteamboatToday.com

Tom Ross: Maine’s approach to Nordic skiing is on target

Even a squinty-eyed reporter from Colorado gets lucky once in a while and hits a target on the biathlon range in Fort Kent, Maine.

I wasn’t raised in a hunting family and have almost no familiarity with firearms. So it came as a surprise one dreary day this month in Fort Kent, Maine, when I was handed an exotic-looking .22-caliber biathlon rifle and invited to see whether I could hit a small black disc of a target 50 meters away.

I was visiting Fort Kent’s Tenth Mountain Ski Club, which already has hosted one biathlon World Cup and hopes to host another in 2011. Biathlon is an intriguing sport that requires athletes to excel at marksmanship in the midst of a heart-pounding ski race.

It ain’t easy, folks.

After a safety orientation at the biathlon range, I settled onto a thick rubber mat in the prone position and peered through the sights of the rifle. Given that I have what is commonly called a lazy eye – my right eye wants to roll up into my skull, sometimes causing double vision – and my vision in my other eye is a tad blurry – I knew my chances of hitting the target were zilch. I was resigned to embarrassing myself.

Then I proceeded to clean a slate of five targets with five successive rounds. Each hit produced a satisfying metallic thunk, and I have to say, it was a cheap thrill.

Of course, I cheated. I was shooting at the larger targets (about 4.5 inches in diameter) that biathletes shoot at from the difficult standing position. When they shoot from the more stable prone position, they have to aim for a smaller target – 1.75 inches.

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When I emptied two clips of five rounds each at the smaller prone targets, I had very little success.

And I should point out that firing at targets in the midst of a competitive biathlon race is far more difficult than what I experienced. Biathletes have to contend with the fact that their heart rate is elevated.

After stopping to shoot in the midst of a cross-country ski race, they must control their heart rate and time the rise and fall of the rifle barrel with their breaths if they hope to be successful. Each miss condemns the athlete to skiing a 150-meter penalty lap in most race formats.

My brief introduction to the biathlon range left me wanting more of the sport. It also left me drawing inevitable comparisons to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

It struck me that biathlon is to the Tenth Mountain Ski Club what Nordic combined is to the Winter Sports Club here. Because both sports have relatively small bases of athletes in the United States, they represent a direct path for exceptionally talented athletes to enter national and international competition.

The Tenth Mountain Ski Club is a nonprofit organization like our club in Steamboat. But there are some notable differences. Tenth Mountain specializes in Nordic skiing – cross-country racing and biathlon. They don’t have Steamboat’s offerings in Alpine, freestyle and snowboarding. Nor do they offer ski jumping. Steamboat has a modest biathlon program that might benefit from all that Tenth Mountain has to offer.

Tenth Mountain is one of several similar clubs in Aroostook County, Maine, all of which offer citizen skiing as well as competitive programs. The other clubs include Four Seasons Trail Association in Madawaska, the Northern Skiers Club in Caribou and The Nordic Heritage Sport Club in Presque Isle. All of them receive support from the Maine Winter Sports Center, as do other Nordic skiing programs in the state.

We don’t have anything quite like the Maine Winter Sports Center in Colorado.

And although my introduction to Northern Maine this month was pretty superficial, it only took me a few days to realize there is a strong quality that the clubs of Aroostook County share with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club – volunteerism.

I jumped onto a volunteer work crew clearing brush from a new trail at the Four Seasons Trail Association, and my Acadian friends reminded me with their obvious dedication that skiing and ski clubs are about much more than just sport.

It’s a way of life here in Northwest Colorado just as it is in far-off Maine.