With less than a month before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, seven Mainers are in the final stages of qualifying events.
Russell Currier, a Stockholm native, could be the first to earn a trip to the Winter Games. He is competing in two biathlons this weekend in Italy and could know by Sunday night whether he has made the team.
Currier is one of four Americans competing for the final two spots on the U.S. Biathlon team and is in good position after the first two races in Italy last weekend. He was the top U.S. finisher in one 10-kilometer sprint, the second in another.
“He has had two good performances there,’’ said Max Cobb, the president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon. “He just needs to keep doing well.’’
For six other Mainers – snowboard cross racers Seth Wescott (Carrabassett Valley) and Alex Tuttle (Stratton), moguls skiers Jeremy Cota (Greenville), Dave DiGravio (Farmington) and Troy Murphy (Bethel) and halfpipe freestyle skier Simon Dumont (Bethel) – the path to Sochi will continue for a while longer. And perhaps is a little more complicated.
These six will compete in World Cup events in the next 11 days with podium finishes (anything in the top three) going a long way toward earning a trip to Sochi. But overall World Cup points will also be part of the qualification process, so it’s inherent that each finish as high as possible in every event.
“I think two podiums would guarantee a spot,’’ said Cota. “But you don’t necessarily need two podiums. It’s more about just trying to ski well at each event.’’
Currier is trying to become the first home-grown product of the Maine Winter Sports Center in Caribou to make the U.S. biathlon team. Ben Koons, a New Zealand Olympic cross country skier in 2010, attended Messalonskee High in Oakland. He’s among 11 competitors who trained at the MWSC and went to the Olympics. None were born in Maine.
Currier, 26, is doing his best to change that. Knowing that two Olympic berths were open among the four U.S. athletes competing in the IBU Cup races in Italy, Currier has put himself in great position to earn a berth in the first two races. Two more will be held, Saturday and Sunday, with the U.S. Biathlon team named after the final race.
“Russell is definitely in good position,’’said Andy Shepard, the president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center. “But I think he needs to continue to perform to win. He did that in the first two competitions. That should be enough for me, but this is a very competitive environment and nobody has a lock on anything yet.’’
Currier knows this. Contacted by email earlier this week, he said he tries not to think about the stakes. “There is a lot of pressure,’’ he said. “Some things you just really want. For me, the best bet is to not think about it.’’
He spent the offseason concentrating on his physical condition and shooting. “There was never much in the way for distractions,’’ he said. “I thought of it as my job and just showed up for work in the morning.’’
With an Olympic berth so close, Currier said, “Sochi is very exciting to think about. But right now I need to qualify first.’’
For Wescott and Tuttle, both graduates of Carrabassett Valley Academy, all eyes are on the podium starting Friday in the Pyrenees Mountains in tiny Andorra.
Wescott, 37, the two-time Olympic gold-medal winner in snowboard cross, missed the first two World Cup events this season recovering from reconstructive left knee surgery on April 23. Tuttle, 23, has struggled, finishing 27th and 35th.
Both remain in contention because the U.S. men’s team has struggled – with a third, sixth and seventh their top results.
“I made good progress this last month and I’m excited to get into the gate and see what it’s like to race and see where I’m at,’’ said Wescott. “It’s one thing to go out and cruise around the mountain. But I think I’m really close to where I need to be. I’m looking at this first week as the place to get it done.’’
Tuttle knows the pressure is mounting for him to have a good run. “But that’s no new thing,’’ he said. “It’s part of what we do, it’s part of being an athlete. You just kind of roll with the punches and don’t let the little stuff affect you. You’ve got to trust your skills will come out and it will all come together.’’
Wescott and Tuttle like the course at Andorra, a flatter, more technical course that benefits their skills and physique. A top-three finish in either of the two races there, or in the final one in Switzerland, will go a long way to determining their Olympic future. “I always feel I need to podium,’’ said Tuttle. “Some days it just doesn’t happen. The cards have to fall your way quite a bit these days with the level of riding in the world stepping up as it has.
“But the podium definitely has to be in my future. I’m ready to get back on.’’
Cota, two years ago one of the top moguls skiers in the world, has also struggled in the first two World Cup events. He didn’t finish the first race in Finland then finished 22nd at Calgary. With nine moguls skiers competing for three Olympic spots, he knows he has to do better.
“I feel great, I’m skiing better than I ever had, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been,’’ he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a matter of putting runs down when it counts.’’
Cota, 25, will be joined by fellow CVA graduate DiGravio, 27, and Gould Academy graduate Murphy, 21, in the next two qualifying events, at Deer Valley, Utah, Jan. 11-13, and then at Lake Placid, N.Y., on Jan. 15. Cota then has one more event in Quebec on Jan. 19. Any top-three finishes would go a long way to securing a spot. But finishing with the best score possible is what matters most in this event.
“I don’t really concern myself with the Olympics but it’s hard not to,’’ said Cota. “Every time I talk to a reporter, all they want to talk about is the Olympics. I can’t really control if I make it or not. All I can control is to ski the best I can. And I also know if I ski the best I can, I can do really well.’’
DiGravio, coming back from a knee injury, is also trying to simply ski. “It’s pretty wide open,’’ he said. “We’ll see what happens. I mean, I’m going to try my best. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I can’t start overthinking about things I can’t control.’’
Murphy, the youngest of the three Maine moguls skiers, would love to earn a berth. “Obviously that’s the main goal,’’ he said. But he knows he can’t think about that too much. “I’ll ski as well as I can and there’s nothing else I can do,’’ he said. “If I ski my best run, it’s a good bet I could qualify. If not …’’
Dumont, 27, knows his career won’t be remembered differently if he doesn’t make the Olympic team. He has long been considered one of the leading pioneers of the sport and drove it forward for many years.
But, he said, “I would like to be part of (the Olympics).’’
He knows the best way to qualify is to get two top-three finishes in the final three events, beginning Thursday in Breckenridge, Colo. If no one does that, the selection process will defer to World Cup points.
Dumont, who suffered a severe ankle injury last summer, was unable to compete in the first World Cup qualifying event because of a concussion. He finished fifth in the next.
“I’m right there, not too far off,’’ he said. “I’m going to try to do what I do, and that’s lay down a great run.’’
He just wishes he hadn’t missed much of the last two seasons with injuries. “To miss two years in this sport is very detrimental,’’ he said. “Things happen fast. I’ll just ski my best and whatever happens, happens.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: