Down East 2013 ©
Olympic hopefuls have it pretty good in Maine. Especially if they’re interested in the Winter Games. The state has world-renowned sports centers from Rumford to Presque Isle, training schools like Carrabassett Valley Academy, a full-slate of national and international races and cups, and plenty of the white stuff to work with.
“Maine has some incredible resources,” says Andrew Shepard, president of the Maine Winter Sports Center, which encompasses an ever-expanding empire of top-shelf ski areas in every corner of the state. “We have great athletes, great snow, world-class facilities, and we have the events for those kids to participate in right in their own home state.”
All this has served us well. The Pine Tree State has launched the careers of quite a number of Olympians, from downhiller Kirsten Clark to snowboarder Seth Wescott to bobsledder Donald LaVigne to speed skater Marc Pelchat.
As these athletes have shown, that yes, you can get to the Olympics from here. But, you’d better get working if you want to make the 2014 team. Here are the places to train in Maine to get a start on your long road to gold-medal glory. And you’ll want to get going, because there’s already a Facebook group dedicated to bringing the 2018 Winter Olympics to Maine and you wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to compete in your home state.
If you want to follow in the ski tracks of Kirsten Clark, the only skier to win four consecutive U.S. downhill titles, you should buy a season pass to Sugarloaf and start schussing. The three-time Olympian found her ski legs on the Carrabassett Valley slopes, beginning at age three. Her first races were against her brother, Sean, on the resort’s Double Bitter run, before she started skiing competitively at age seven. It was all downhill from there. Sugarloaf starts kids in its Mountain Magic program as preschoolers (ages three to six), and there are programs that run all the way up into adulthood. It’s great for training because 43 percent of its runs are black diamond, and you typically have as many as 155 days a year — that’s five months! -— to practice. The resort gets about two hundred inches of snow a year, and has snowmaking capabilities on 490 acres. And it’s a serious mountain — Maine’s fourth largest — with a vertical drop of 2,820 feet. All that, and there are races almost every month at which to show your stuff, from U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association-sponsored mogul challenges to Fédération Internationale de Ski Speed weeks. www.sugarloaf.com  Bobsled
If Jamaica can have a bobsled team then surely a winter wonderland like Maine can field one. Well, not exactly. While Mainers once put 150 people in a bobsled in downtown Cornish in 1935 (to the delight of the BBC), we don’t have any facility to practice the sport. Your best bet might be to take the wheels off that old soapbox-derby racer in your barn and take it to the nearest hill — or to the Camden Snow Bowl, where there is a toboggan chute that you can run. (Make sure you ask first.) If you think maybe bobsledding is for you — like Brunswick’s Donald LaVigne did in 1988 — and you are in good shape (5’10” to 6’3” and 180 to 240 lbs for men, 5’6” to 6’0 and 150 to 175 lbs for women) visit the governing body of bobsledding in the nation. You might just find yourself giving those Jamaicans a run for their money. www.bobsled.teamusa.org  Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiers have it easy in Maine. You can make a loop on just about any farm field or golf course near your home and ski until your legs and lungs burn. Many high schools have ski racing teams, and there are two dozen cross-country ski centers spread across the state. Some of these — like Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, and Carter’s Cross-Country Ski Center in Oxford — are exceptional. But if you are serious about Olympic training, you’ll eventually want to make it to the Maine Winter Sports Center’s campuses in Rumford, Presque Isle, Mars Hill, New Gloucester, and Fort Kent, where they maintain state-of-the-art facilities for the skinny skier, including kilometer after kilometer of Fédération Internationale de Ski-approved trails. They also host frequent high-profile races. www.mainewsc.org  Curling
It’s never too late to start curling — even if you have Olympic aspirations. As Belfast Curling Club’s Barbara Parker puts it: “It’s one of the only sports where you can be a late onset starter and reach a level that would be highly competitive.” Parker should know — she’s the past president of the fifty-one-year-old club and a long-time volunteer. The best way to get on the ice is by visiting the Route 3 arena during one of the club’s regularly scheduled open houses. “That’s the ideal introduction,” says Parker. “If people find they enjoy it then they can sign up for the skills clinic on the following Monday evening.” Then it’s onto a team for league play. The club has games scheduled at least four days a week, and people come from as far away as Boothbay, Bar Harbor, and Bangor to slide the heavy granite stones toward the target. Get really good and you’ll be ready to participate in the club’s four major bonspiels or make the “away curling” travel team. Belfast teams have competed in the World Women’s Championships and the U.S. Curling Championships. Be ready to practice, though. “It’s an easy sport to get into,” notes Parker, “but it’s a difficult sport to master.” www.belfastcurlingclub.org  Freestyle Skiing
Freestyle skiing has been growing in Maine quicker than a Jackman snowbank in February, and the facilities just keep getting better. High-flying skiers can practice their aerials and skicross at a handful of terrain parks across the state, with the best of these at Sugarloaf. Newbies can give soaring a shot at the Carrabassett Valley resort’s Skybound, testing themselves on low jumps and rails. Intermediates can take to the Stomping Grounds, and the most Olympic-ready freestylers will love the Yard, with three sets of jumps, the tallest being a thrilling fifty feet. Freestyle is always a competition (and there’s always an audience under the SuperQuad), but Sugarloaf hosts a full calendar of official freestyle events each year. www.sugarloaf.com  Ice Hockey
Mainers love their hockey, and the University of Maine has put the state on the map among the stick and puck set. So it’s no surprise that the Pine Tree State has a serious hockey program that takes kids from age three all the way to the NHL and the U.S. national team. “Can a player reach the pros out of Maine?” asks Jeffrey Thompson, administrator of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, which governs the sport in Maine. “Absolutely. Can you make it to the Olympics? Absolutely. Just look at Eric Weinrich.” Weinrich is the defenseman who learned to play in Gardiner, went to the University of Maine, left school to join the U.S. national team, and played for eight NHL teams, including the Boston Bruins, before retiring in 2006. (He’s currently an assistant coach with the Portland Pirates.) Future Weinrichs can find rinks and leagues all over, and any kid with a few boards and a garden hose can make a place to practice in the backyard. The Maine Amateur Hockey Association’s arms reach from York to Presque Isle, and it has competitive leagues for kids as young as ten and learn-to-skate programs for kids just out of diapers. If you want to participate in a Miracle on Ice, the possibility is there in the Pine Tree State. www.meaha.org  Luge
Luge is an ephemeral thing here in Maine. You can’t predict when a luge track will appear, but appear it does. USA Luge has brought its Slider Search to the state fairly regularly — every year from 1996-2001, according to the organization’s marketing and sponsorship director Gordy Sheer. (Sheer says funding cuts have made it hard to get all the way to Portland in recent years, though they visited Boston twice in 2008.) The Slider Search is a try-out of sorts, and it usually lands at Spring Street in Portland. Participants at the three-hour clinics learn the basics of steering and stopping, and then put on a helmet and hurtle feet-first down the incline. Those who are really excited by the adrenaline rush — and who seem like good prospects — are put through a battery of fitness tests. If they do well, they get an invite to try the real thing at one of three luge courses in the U.S., in Lake Placid, Park City, and Marquette, Michigan. The Slider Search is how most people have gotten into the sport — that’s how eight members of the U.S. Olympic Luge Team for 2006 found their way onto sleds, including the entire women’s singles team. And it’s how Maine’s own Julia Clukey, of Augusta, got her start. “They came to Portland in the summer of 1997,” she says, “and a friend and I decided to go and try the sport on a whim. I grew up skiing in Maine, so I was always a big winter person and liked speed.” Clukey is currently ranked fifth in the world and second in the U.S. If you have a similar need for speed — the average luge run has a vertical drop of thirty stories (three hundred feet) and speeds of upwards of ninety miles per hour are common — keep an eye out for the Slider Search. www.usaluge.org  Skeleton
Drive past any big hill in Maine after a good snowfall and you’ll see kids sledding down headfirst. That’s the idea behind the sport of skeleton, which is like the luge and shares the same track, but puts the rider on headfirst and allows for no steering or braking. The sport got its start in the late nineteenth century when British soldiers in Switzerland built a twisting, turning toboggan track between the cities of Davos and Klosters. Because the sport has its roots in tobogganing, your best bet on your way to Olympic gold is to find the steepest, iciest hillside you can and make repeated runs, hugging the sled to your chest, making sure to remember your helmet. (Yes, you might want to call your health insurance company beforehand.) A few trips down such a terrifying drop, and you’ll quickly have an idea if this sort of thing is for you. Then get yourself in shape — they want you 5’6” to 6’ and 150 to 180 lbs for men and 5’ to 5’9” and 130 to 170 lbs for women. www.bobsled.teamusa.org  Speed Skating
Speed skaters have only one option in Maine — Great Atlantic Speed Skating Club’s short-track oval at the Family Ice Center in Falmouth. Formed by a group of adults who wanted to go a little faster than they could at the average free skate, the club has only been around since 2002. But it’s already sent one member to the nationals and expects two more to go this year. Simply because of arena sizes here in Maine, skaters are limited to short-track sprints of 111 meters, as opposed to the 400-meter dashes on the big ovals you see on TV. The club takes over the Falmouth rink once a week from September to March and sets up a track right down the center of the ice. “It’s an oval,” says club president and coach Karen Schilling, “but a small oval.” The walls are then lined with padding and skaters begin their runs. Once a month they’re visited by Sue Ellis, a former U.S. Olympic speed skating coach. If this sounds like your thing, the club hosts “Try Speed Skating” events on an annual basis, and coach Schilling says ten is the age at which they like to start kids. The club is still small — about fifteen members — but Schilling expects things to heat up this winter when the torch is lit and NBC begins broadcasting the games from Vancouver on February 12. “We do see a surge right after the Olympics.” www.greatatlanticspeedskating.org  Ski Jumping
For years skiers on their way to Sunday River would drive past a big jump at Shaw’s Corner in Bethel. Roughly eighty feet long, the ramp was used by Gould Academy’s ski team for decades and saw recreational jumpers as late as the nineties. But the area has since been sold to developers. The other hope for Maine jumpers was at Black Mountain in Rumford, but that ramp has been closed, too, for insurance reasons, according to Andrew Shepard of the Maine Winter Sports Center, which now operates the facility. So if you want to train for the Olympics in ski jumping, you’re going to have to find a nice long hill and build your own ramp. You can find all kinds of plans online — but don’t tell your insurance company you heard it from us. Biathlon Cross-country skiing. Shooting. Cross-country skiing and shooting. This is the stuff of biathlon, and if it’s your sport, Maine is quite simply the place to be. (The U.S. Biathlon team actually has its headquarters in New Gloucester.) “For biathlon, the Tenth Mountain Ski Center (www.10thmtskiclub.org ) in Fort Kent and the Nordic Heritage Ski Center (www.nordicheritagecenter.org ) in Presque Isle are two of the five top venues in the world,” says Andrew Shepard of the Maine Winter Sports Center, which oversees both facilities. This isn’t empty boosterism: the International Biathlon Union has called Tenth Mountain “world-class.” It’s hard to imagine what else an Olympic ski-shooter could want, with twenty-five kilometers of superb skiing — three kilometers of which are lit for nighttime practice — and a thirty-station shooting course. Even in the summer you can work out here on a 1.5-kilometer paved loop designed for roller skiing. Add to that a roster of coaches with Olympic experience and a full-slate of races to get your skis warmed up, and you’re on your way. www.mainewsc.org  Figure Skating
Figure skaters at the Olympic level all have one thing in common: money. Or someone behind them with money. Unbeknownst to the casual observer, the sport is extremely expensive. Those pretty white skates? $1,200 and up for a serious pair, and most kids blow through two sets a year. Ice time? Ten bucks an hour at the low end. Coaching? Sixty dollars an hour here in Maine, and you usually need a few helpers — a choreographer, a jump coach, and a program coordinator. “It’s not enough to just have the talent,” says Cindy Bolles, a coach with the Falmouth-based North Atlantic Figure Skating Club (NAFSC). “You need to have the money behind you, too.” Bolles, who came out of the same Yarmouth, Massachusetts, program as Nancy Kerrigan, says she pays about $15,000 a year for her twelve-year-old daughter to pursue the sport. Luckily kids with the means have a great opportunity in Maine to get a solid foundation in the sport — there are programs from Saco to Presque Isle. Coaches at the NAFSC have a wealth of experience behind them and are certified at the highest levels, and many have experience nationally or have worked in ice shows. Most skaters begin at age three or four in SnowPlow Sam learn-to-skate programs and then graduate to private lessons. At a certain level, though, the most talented skaters find themselves driving to Boston for more ice time than they can find in Maine. That’s the sort of dedication Olympic glory requires — not only is the sport expensive and time-consuming, it takes a lot of discipline. “Skating is such a hard thing to master,” says Bolles. “We lose a lot of kids. They don’t want to fall repeatedly, learning to jump, and that’s what it takes.” If you have what it takes, glide online to the Web sites of the North Atlantic Figure Skating Club or the Skating Club of Maine. www.northatlanticfsc.org  or www.scmaine.org  Snowboarding
Seth Wescott has become the face of Olympic snowboarding and, well, he’s our face, having grown up in the Farmington area (his parents were University of Maine-Farmington professors) and attended Carrabassett Valley Academy. Wescott has become the biggest snowboardcross racer in the world and won the gold in the event at the 2006 Turin Olympics. You could do a lot worse than emulate him if you want to stand on the highest podium at the games. Wescott got his start on cross-country skis at age three, moved to a downhill pair at eight, and first stepped on a snowboard at ten. As a boarder, he competed in the half-pipe for years, but as snowboardcross began to grow in popularity in the 1990s he focused on that new sport, which sees four competitors race against each other and the clock on a three thousand-foot course. This dangerous game is how Wescott made his name and his fame. This winter, Sugarloaf has added a Wescott-designed snowboardcross park, the Sidewinder, to its snowboard arsenal, and it’s a fantastic place to begin your quest for the gold. You can even race against Wescott himself (or at least try to beat his time). www.sugarloaf.com  Maine’s All-Star Academy
Carrabassett Valley Academy must have an enormous trophy case. The sheer number of Olympians (11), world champions (6), national title winners (74), collegiate all-Americans (18), national team members (27), and X-Game competitors (7) that the school near Sugarloaf has produced is rather staggering. They must be saying something inspirational during homeroom. If you are a skier or a boarder and you are serious about pursuing Olympic dreams, there is no better place to start. www.gocva.com