Maine rich in Winter Olympic tradition
PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s first Winter Olympian got to the games almost by accident.
Geoffrey Mason, a 1923 Bowdoin College graduate, had traveled to Europe to further his studies. According to legend, he was studying at the University of Freiburg in Germany when he noticed an advertisement in the Paris Herald asking for American athletes in Europe to go to St. Moritz to try out for the U.S. bobsled team.
Mason, who had run track and played football at Bowdoin, made the trip to Switzerland in 1928 – and not only made the bobsled team, but won a gold medal.
He never competed in the bobsled again. He returned to the U.S. and became a teacher and a coach.
Thus began a long line of Winter Olympics competitors from Maine.
Since 1948, when Wendell “Chummy’’ Broomhall of Mexico competed in cross country skiing in St. Moritz, Maine has had at least one competitor in every Winter Olympics. This year in Sochi, Russia, Russell Currier of Stockholm will compete in the biathlon.
Over the decades, 37 athletes who were born in Maine or attended school here have competed in the Winter Olympics. They include Seth Wescott, who grew up in Farmington and has won two gold medals in snowboardcross; Bode Miller, a New Hampshire native who attended Carrabassett Valley Academy and has five won medals in Alpine skiing; and the Parisien siblings, Julie, Rob and Annalise, who competed in Alpine events over three Olympic cycles.
Competing in the Olympics, said Wescott, is made more special by knowing how much the state is behind you.
“You are representing your country,” he said. “But it feels more like you’re representing your state. Those are the people that you interact with and that have supported you. ... When you’re there, at the Olympics, you’re carrying all those people’s hopes and dreams.”
Wescott, who now lives in Carrabassett Valley, failed to qualify for the Olympics this year as he tried to work his way back from a knee injury.
MAINE'S TEAM OF FOUR, 1968
Four Mainers competed in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France: John Bower, Tom Upham, Jim Miller and Jack Lufkin.
Bower, who’s now 73 and living in Moab, Utah, said he and his fellow Mainers didn’t think anything of the four of them being together in Grenoble.
“It was unusual,” he said, “but I don’t remember having a great amount of Pine Tree celebration.”
Bower, a Lewiston native who graduated from Edward Little High School, competed in the Nordic combined and cross country skiing in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Upham, an Edward Little graduate from Lewiston, and Miller, of Mexico, were also on the nordic combined team in 1968. Lufkin, of Rumford, was on the cross country ski team.
Nordic skiing was a smaller community back then, with Maine near its center. Chummy Broomhall began a string of Maine nordic skiers in the Olympics that included Robert Piddacks and Charlie Akers.
“It became a goal for us to get on the U.S. national teams, get to the world championships, get to the Olympics,” said Upham. “We knew it was possible because other people had done it.”
Upham, who’s now 70 and living in Wilton, was flying high when he made the 1968 team.
“John Bower, who was just a few years older, was my hero,” he said. “And here I was, on that same 1968 team with him. It was a big deal to me.”
Bower, who went on to coach at Middlebury College, said the draw of the Olympics was as strong back then as it is now.
“The Olympics and the world championships, those were the epitome,” he said. “Those were the ultimate achievements for us. There was no World Cup. You focused your training, your whole athletic life, on making the Olympic team or the world championships.”
Another difference from today? The money.
“There was no money back then,” said Bower, who retired from the sport after the 1968 games because he had no funding and could no longer depend on his parents and wife to pay his training expenses. “Guys today, they have sponsorships. They can make a good living.”
Being in the Olympics “gave me more confidence than I had previously,” said Lufkin, who’s now 66.
All four men remained involved in skiing throughout their lives in one way or another. Upham’s son, James, is now the head coach of the U.S. Paralympic team.
“It was certainly an exciting time,” said Upham. “It didn’t gain me anything financially, but it fulfilled a dream that I had.”
DAN SIMONEAU, 1980, 1984, 1988
Dan Simoneau, who was born in Farmington and graduated from Livermore Falls High, carried Maine’s Nordic torch in 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and in 1988 in Calgary. He was also on the 1980 Olympic team in Lake Placid, but didn’t ski in any races – “I got to watch Eric Heiden and a pretty cool hockey game,” he said.
He was speaking, of course, of the “Miracle on Ice,” a 4-3 victory for a bunch of U.S. college hockey players over the Soviet Union juggernaut.
“I can’t watch that movie,” Simoneau said. “It makes me cry.’’
Of his Olympic experiences, he said, “The first time, I was just cool with making it. I was the young guy on the team and no guarantee I would race. The next two times, I was one of the guys and there was never a question of whether I was going or not.”
And, unlike in Lake Placid, where he took in other events, “I was there to compete.”
Simoneau, who’s now 55 and a cross country skiing coach in Bend, Ore., said his life didn’t change after the Olympics, just perhaps other people’s perception of him.
“To me, I’m still a guy named Dan from Livermore Falls High School,” he said. “But when you make an Olympic team, people treat you differently when they find out. I had a boss once who introduced me as, ‘This is our Olympic guy.’ It was at a ski place and he called me the Olympic guy.”
Simoneau was well aware of Maine’s rich nordic heritage as he was growing up.
“I tried to tap into that heritage,” he said. “A lot of who I am today was made possible by the opportunities that people gave me to ski.”
ERIC WEINRICH, 1988
Eric Weinrich wasn’t born in Maine, but his ties to the state run deep. He lived in Auburn, Poland, Rumford and, finally, Gardiner, attended North Yarmouth Academy and then became the first University of Maine hockey player to make the U.S. Olympic team, in 1988.
“It was a dream of mine to be on the Olympic team after that 1980 team,” he said. “And it was a thrill, though at the time I never grasped what being part of the Olympic team was about.
“It was about representing your country and being part of a group of guys trying to make another miracle. Maybe I took it a little for granted. It was the experience of a lifetime and an amazing athletic event,” he said. “I wish I could go back as a spectator.”
Weinrich went on to have a 17-year NHL career and finished his playing days as a player-assistant coach for the Portland Pirates. He is now a scout for the Buffalo Sabres and lives in Yarmouth with his family.
Weinrich said he was fortunate to play in an era when professional players were excluded from the Olympics – the United States didn’t use professional players until 1998. “I don’t know if I would have ever got the chance to go, with the pros,” he said.
He said the Olympics taught him that sports can transcend nationalism.
“Being patriotic is one thing,” he said, “but when you’re around these amazing athletes, you almost root for anyone when you’re there.”
THE PARISIEN SIBLINGS, 1992, 1994, 1998
To call the Parisiens the first family of Maine Alpine skiing would not be an overstatement.
Julie competed in three Olympics, finishing a heartbreaking fourth in the slalom in 1992. Her brother Rob joined her in Albertville, France, in 1992, and her sister Anna joined her in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994.
“We were just very talented naturally, and progressed through the ranks,” said Julie Nuce, who’s now a nurse for MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta. “It was what we did, what we put into skiing.”
She said she never felt the pressure of having to represent her state, though she knew everyone was counting on her.
“There’s so much pressure involved anyway, I just tried to keep myself focused on what I had to do,” she said. “When I was in Lillehammer, I would get huge packages of letters every day delivered to my room from people in Maine. When you realize that people care about you, it’s not overwhelming but heartwarming.”
In addition to her fourth-place finish in the slalom in Albertville (by five hundredths of a second), she finished fifth in the giant slalom.
“It was horrible,” said Nuce, who had the fastest time after the first of two runs in the slalom. “I skied well and I got beaten. It was the ultimate lesson. You can do your best and you can still get beaten.”
Four days after those Olympics ended, she won a World Cup race.
Did the Olympics change her life?
“It would have changed my life if I won a medal,” she said. “I lead a totally normal life. I work in a hospital, I have four kids (ages 6-12). I struggle day to day with my diet and my weight.”
Nuce, now 42, retired from skiing in 1998 and went back to school to get her nursing degree, graduating from the University of Southern Maine in 2003.
She still pays attention to what goes on in Alpine skiing. She doesn’t have a television, but often watches the races streamed live on her computer.
“It’s tough to watch it sometimes,” she said. “I know all those hills, I know the courses. Sometimes I say, ‘I can still totally do that.’ ”
KIRSTEN CLARK, 1998, 2002, 2006
While she was growing up in Raymond and attending Carrabassett Valley Academy, Kirsten Clark saw firsthand how Maine embraces its athletes. Her first sponsor was a local bank. Others soon joined.
“It’s a small community,” she said. “You feel a lot of support. A lot of people care for you. They’re excited when you do well, sad when you don’t do well, sadder when you get hurt.”
She competed in three Olympics, in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin, Italy, in 2006. Her events – downhill, giant slalom, Super G and combined – kept her father on edge. “It was frightening at times,” said George Clark, who still lives in Raymond. “A lot of bad things can happen if you don’t stay in control.”
Kirsten Clark-Richenbach, 37, now lives with her husband and three children in Squaw Valley, Calif.
She skis with her children and will encourage them to “follow their own footsteps and whatever dreams and aspirations they want.”
She looks back fondly on her career, even if it didn’t include an Olympic medal.
“As athletes, you don’t want to put all your eggs into the Olympics,” she said. “You can still have a wonderful year without winning an Olympic medal. I say that because I didn’t win any medals and still think I had a great career.”
And she tried to remain true to herself and her friends.
“I never felt anyone looked at me differently because I was in the Olympics,” she said. “And I’m glad that they didn’t because that would have meant I had changed.”