The first time I contacted Russell Currier for a retirement interview, it was mid-April. I had asked him to share his story, and no more than 24 hours after my initial email to Currier, I received a response.
“Yeah, let’s do that. I’m actually in Bozeman right meow,” he’d written.
Digging through my memory bank, I recalled Currier having come to Bozeman one other time. Two Aprils ago, the Stockholm, Maine, native spent a week in Montana visiting friends. The faint memory of Currier showing up to my Bozeman apartment that spring, sporting a DIY unicorn outfit, had me wondering what the recent biathlon retiree was up to two years later (at the time of our email correspondence, it had been 10 days since Currier’s final career competitions, the 2018 USBA nationals in Park City, Utah).
Since I was still living in Bozeman, Currier and I decided to meet in person for the interview. Open mic night at a local coffee shop seemed like a safe rendezvous spot. While I arrived at our destination point uncharacteristically early, Currier showed up characteristically five minutes late.
He had dropped the paper-cone head prong for this occasion, though he still had the same curly mop of brown hair. Leather thong flip flops, a black hoodie and shorts made him an unmistakable Mainer — most in the room wore pants and closed toed shoes, fitting for the local forecast of mid-40 temps and rain.
The coffee shop served more than just coffee and we wound up sipping on local brews called “Strange Cattle”. A few shaky singers and a couple billiard –albeit shabby –games later, the Strange Cattle had gotten the best of us. My audio recorder inevitably remained in my pocket and the interview remained undone.
By the time we finally sat down to chat, it was over a month and quite a few text messages later (one of which involved Currier asking to borrow 90 K). In short, the following interview with Currier was conducted over the phone in late May, seeing as April is best left for brews and mythological beasts.
FasterSkier’s questions appear in bold; Currier’s responses follow immediately after.
FasterSkier: Russ, good to have you on the phone. What are you up now?
Russell Currier: Cutting cantaloupe.
FS: Nice. Whereabouts?
RC: Windham [Maine]. I moved there at the end of April. I’m staying in the basement of an old friend and doing landscaping. It’s not permanent, but it will suffice for now.
FS: Why landscaping?
RC: It was something that I could show up hungover for, but still grind it out and make it work.
FS: When did you decide to retire?
RC: Honestly, about two years ago. I had a really bad season [in 2015/2016] and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep racing or not. I decided to give it two more years, just to see if I could make it through another Olympic cycle.
FS: Were you experiencing any illness in 2015/2016?
RC: No, I think there were a few equipment issues that were bad luck. I didn’t do anything wrong. I did the best I could. I just didn’t nail training as best as I could. I was at that level of, you either get lucky and train really well, or you don’t get lucky; you try to train really well, but you don’t quite nail it.
FS: What do you mean by equipment issues?
RC: We had trials in Canmore and it was really, really cold that year — I mean, it’s always cold in Canmore — and the ammunition I was using wasn’t shooting very well. That may have been the limiting factor to my entire season. But it’s one of those things though that you can’t really prove.
That season ended up being my worst one ever. It was bad enough to say this could be a justifying end. So I gave myself the month of April to make the call; decide if I wanted to keep going or not.
FS: So in the end you essentially said, screw it, let’s do this?
RC: Pretty much. Officially, I did it out of curiosity. I figured it was worth the expense and trouble, since I had already gone that far.
My thinking was, if I go two more years, the absolute worst case scenario would be I rack up more debt and I don’t make it. The best case scenario, I do make it and I retire.*
*Currier went on to qualify for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. He also qualified for the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
FS: What will you miss the most about competing in biathlon?
RC: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t really wrapped my mind around the fact that I’ve retired. So far, it’s still awesome because it’s absolute freedom. I still do plenty of training. I actually did an ultramarathon this weekend, which is a whole other story within itself.
FS: An ultramarathon, really, where was that?
Pineland Farms. They have a 25-kilometer cross-country ski trail. We did three times around that, plus an additional loop so that it would add up to 50 miles. I couldn’t walk the day after. That was problematic.
FS: Do you think you have a future in ultramarthon running?
RC: I don’t know. I have to think about it. That was one thing my coaches had always told me was, if this biathlon thing doesn’t work out and you ever get into ultramarathon running, it could be your thing.
FS: So, back to what you’ll miss most about competing in biathlon?
RC: After the last race in Utah, I never really had time to sit down, think it over and decide how I felt about the last 16 years of my life. I don’t know if I’ll have a mental breakdown when I do or if I’ll think, wow, that was fun, and move on.
I had to send USADA [the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] a letter saying that I officially retired. That kind of hit home. It was like signing the final papers on a divorce order. You’re ending a relationship with something you’ve been with for so long
FS: Looking back, what’s your fondest ski memory?
RC: The race weekend in Kontiolahti, Finland. It was super cold there, as in below legal race temperatures. I got food poisoning the day before the race. But I had traveled all that way and this was my one chance to race, so I raced anyway. I ended up cleaning and finished sixth.
That was the second top 10* that I had ever had and the whole thing was just one giant surreal experience. (The afterparty was just nuts and [the U.S. team] did a Finnish sauna).
*Currier has been to two Olympic Games, qualified for four World Championships teams, earned two sixth-place World Cup results in 2012, and this spring alone, had a fourth, fifth and sixth place finish at USBA nationals.
FS: What’s involved in a Finnish sauna?
RC: I’m sure it varies from one part of Finland to the next, but you go in the sauna, get as hot as you can, then you run around outside like naked idiots. After that you go back inside the sauna, get as hot as you can tolerate, then go outside and jump in the snow, roll around. Then you go back inside and the final time you [exit] the sauna, you have to jump in the water (this is winter, so it’s basically just this carved hole in the ice). There are also a bunch of reeds you’re supposed to hit each other with. It’s like a sword fight with these giant sticks. Weird Finnish things.
FS: Interesting. How would you describe your career trajectory?
RC: I never had any specific goal in mind, I just wanted to see what would happen if I actually gave it my full effort and pushed it into my late 20s and early 30s … I made it further than most people thought I ever would have when I started. But I also always had higher expectations for myself.
FS: Do you feel like people were skeptical of you?
RC: No, I don’t know if they were skeptical. They just didn’t know what to expect. I was one of the early athletes to jump on board with what Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC)* was offering; nobody had any idea really how it worked. It wasn’t like an academy school in New England, or Steamboat Springs or a little ski town in Norway or anything like that where everyone was on board with how the system worked. This was a completely new and revolutionary thing to do.
*MWSC has since been refashioned into the the Outdoor Sports Institute.
FS: Were you one of the first athletes with MWSC?
RC: Not the first, there were a few other athletes that were there before me, but not many. I think MWSC started in the summer of 2001, so [the program] had only been around for three years or so by the time I joined.
FS: How did you get involved with MWSC/skiing?
RC: It was a very arbitrary and borderline impulsive decision. The impulse never wore off.
FS: Where is the sport lacking or what do you think needs to be changed?
RC: Short answer, it needs to be way cleaner. Almost any North American athlete would probably say that right off the bat. For good reason. It’s scary how much time and effort of your life you can pour into something, only to watch an entire organization walk all over it. Ruin it. Unfairly. It really is terrible and it’s as bad as everyone thinks it is.
FS: You’ve been involved for 16 years now, any advice for those coming into the world of biathlon?
RC: I would say biathlon and cross-country will produce way more failure than they ever will success. These sports are going to kick you in the teeth constantly. You’re going to get the [expletive] kicked out of you so many times before you get the glory that you see on TV.
But, to quote John Farra, it’s worth it.
I remember John going on and on about the opening ceremonies at the Olympics and just saying it’s worth it. All the training, all the setbacks. It’s worth it. (Ironically when I finally did make [my first Olympic team in 2014], I actually missed the opening ceremonies because we had a race the next day, so we didn’t go. I thought that was kind of funny.)
Anyway, yeah, if you’re aware that it’s going to be one colossal struggle and you come in expecting that, it makes it not so bad.
FS: Any unsung heroes to whom you’d like to pay tribute?
RC: My neighbor down the road from me growing up has not only been my number-one fan, but he has also painstakingly made various parts for my rifle that have literally played a crucial role in my career. He’s a machinist and a lot of my rifle’s components were his design. I’ll give a shout out to Tom Campbell for supporting me both grooming wise and equipment wise throughout my career.
What others had to say about Currier
The following is a compilation of emails from various individuals who worked with Currier over the course of his ski career.
I’ve always admired Russ’s ability to be resourceful and resilient. He’s had his share of frustrating races, such as placing 61st in sprints on multiple occasions (just missing out on pursuits). However he always bounces back. Watching him place a career-best 6th in a World Cup in Nove Mesto in 2012 was incredibly inspiring because he was the ultimate underdog on our underdog team. He had struggled to qualify for international racing earlier in the season and surprised a lot of people that day.
Russell was incredibly careful never to waste food, as though he had lived a previous life in the Great Depression. He used to fill container after container of food at the OTC dining hall and carefully take it with him until his room was full of to-go coffee cups filled with varying granolas.
Once when we were at the August rollerski trials in Jericho, Vt., I bought a 69-cent two-pack of puddings post-race. They were so awful that I left the other one in the place we were staying, intending to get rid of it. Russell saved it, put it in his truck, and drove it back home to Maine thinking I forgot it. He kept in his refrigerator for two and a half months and then drove it back down to Vermont and gave it to me at October Rollerski Trials. I was so flabbergasted by his dedication to save that terrible pudding cup that I just ate it.
— Joanne Reid
My favorite Russell stories probably shouldn’t be put in print, so I’ll go with this.
Russ is the only person I’ve known to go on runs with a shotgun. Apparently it’s quite an effective partridge hunting tactic.
— Welly Ramsey
It has been great to watch Russell over the years, develop as an athlete and keep working towards his goals. In the last couple of years it was impressive to see Russell really refocus and work towards a second Olympic opportunity and how it paid off. It will be exciting to see what opportunities come next for Russell!
— Seth Hubbard
One of my favorite memories of Russell is from when he was first interested in racing, in early high school. We were at a training camp and he was very concerned about what he was eating — only what he deemed healthy— and about getting the hours in his training plan.
When it was time to pack up, Russ was hungry and tired after his longer A.M. workout and he saw food on the table (breakfast for everyone) which he proceeded to eat in its entirety. Needless to say, he was not much help with packing and no one was very happy about the lack of breakfast. Russell, however, felt fine.
— Sarah Dominick
Russ was one of a few athletes that lived at the 10th Mountain Lodge at some point in their career. One summer night, I headed up there to pick up something I needed for training the next morning (can’t remember what). Since he lived upstairs, and it was dark, I thought it would be fun to try and scare him. I made my way through the door and up the stairs as quietly as I could, thinking I was really going to scare the [expletive] out of him. As I started rounding the corner, Russ jumped out from his room, headlamp blinding my eyes, biathlon rifle aimed at my face, finger on the trigger. I think that was the only time he almost shot me.
— Nick Michaud
Russ was a morning person, more so than anyone else I’ve met before or since — he drew his innate energy from waking up early and making breakfast as the dawn broke.
We were staying in the house of a family friend for August World Cup Trials one year, and I came crawling (actually crawling) down the stairs race morning, bleary-eyed, incapable of speech, dysfunctional, and partly jet-lagged from flying to the East coast for these races. My body thought it was about 3am, and I tended to wake up at 11.
Russell started dancing around me, delighted in the (terribleness of) mornings, smiled down at me crawling on the stairs, and says, “I know what your spirit animal is! It’s a sloth!!!!” He called me Sloth ever since.
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Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.