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By Sam Evans-Brown
For any American cross-country skier looking to compete internationally, all roads lead through the nationals.
Take Torin Koos for example, a former member of the U.S. World Cup team, who is battling here to regain his lost spot.
"Hopefully," Koos said, "I think there’s a chance if I’m the overall sprint leader after [the U.S. Cross-Country Skiing Championships], I should be able to get some start spots for the spring World Cups."
These racers are dedicated to their sport and they will go wherever they have to go to compete in the national championships. Even to Rumford, Maine, a once-thriving paper-mill town that the economy has left in tatters.
Peter Kling, who skis for Alaska Pacific University, said that the skiers understand what these races mean for the people in town.
"It’s definitely a pretty tough town," Kling said. "People have that in the back of their minds, they’re like 'Oh, I don’t really want to go and race there,' but they’re gonna do the best they can."
The racers converge once a year for a week of racing.
The bidding for which venue gets to host the races is aggressive. Black Mountain, Rumford’s community ski area, has hosted for two years in a row.
To understand how the event ended up in a hard-scrabble town like Rumford, one has to understand the people of Rumford.
A surprising number of them pitch in to help the host, the Chisholm Ski Club, to make these races possible.
"I’ve got to get the course ready for the races," said Jeff Knight, as he was out grooming the trails before the first race. "There are a few places that were a little thin so I’m covering those over and cover it all up and it’s ready for the kids when they get here."
Knight’s efforts to prep the course are the just the start of the work. Terry Richard coordinated the army of Chisholm Ski Club volunteers who rolled in at the crack of dawn on race day.
"We have well over 100 volunteers that are here for the day and we start at 6:30 in the morning," said Richard. When asked how many people working were going to be paid, she simply offered, "zero."
Those volunteers did get a free meal shared among friends at a spot called Muriel’s Kitchen.
The Kitchen’s namesake, Muriel Arsenault, had to retire a few years back, and it’s now run by her daughter-in-law, Sally, who doesn’t even cross-country ski, but she can’t stay away from these races.
"It’s the love of the sport," Sally said. "This town used to be so huge on skiing, and we’re hoping that we’re able to keep everybody’s interest and keep them coming back. It’s just an amazing place."
All of this effort and organization spins around one family name: the Broomhalls.
Ray Broomhall finally retired from Chisholm last year, at age 77, after being part of the Chisholm Ski Club for "umpteen-99 years."
"It’s been quite an experience," he continued. "You know, watching the kids come up and coaching the kids from the junior program right up through the high school program. If it wasn’t for Chummy I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing."
Wendell "Chummy" Broomhall is Ray’s older brother, who at 92 years old, still makes it out to every ski race.
Chummy has a lifetime of ski stories to tell, served in the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in World War II, and skied in the Olympics in 1948 and 1952.
People in Rumford call him the patron saint of skiing, and there is a reverence in their voice when they talk about him. Chummy has poured his life into the Chisholm Ski Club, and was instrumental in bringing the nationals to town.
If not for the aging members of the club, the town of Rumford would be hurting worse than it is. These races put bodies in hotel beds, account for groceries and gas purchases, and fill a week’s worth of restaurant tables. A study of the races estimated that they bring around $1.5 million worth of direct and indirect economic impact.
"It makes a very big impact on the community," said Jean DeSalle, who owns a motel in Rumford. "I think we’d be dead if it wasn’t for these races. I’ve talked to other businesses and if they don’t have ski teams staying here right now, they’d have nothing, because there is no snow."
For the second year in row Mother Nature failed to deliver natural snow in time for the races. To save last year’s races, volunteers trucked in snow from further north and dumped it on the course.
This year Black Mountain brought in modern snow-guns and poured a $100,000 and 600 man hours into covering the trails with artificial snow.
This expense is possible because of the Maine Winter Sports Center, a non-profit organization that secured close to $6 million in grant money to buy Black Mountain and renovate it so it could host top races.
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Last weeks’ races went off without a hitch, despite the uncooperative weather.
The story of the week was 20-year-old Jesse Diggins, who won three out of the four women’s races.
But even with the thrill of victory hanging in the air there is concern about the future of skiing in Rumford and at Chisholm in particular. Ray Broomhall is worried.
"With the age group out here you don’t know how long it’s going to last because they’re so old," he said." "I hate to say it, I think once Chummy’s gone your going see a lot of them drop out, because they’re just more or less doing it for him."
Ray guesses that the average age of the Chisholm volunteers is at least 72.
School enrollment in Rumford is dropping, and the median age rising, as every year more young people move away.
New blood isn’t filling the ranks of the Chisholm Ski Club. But the races, and skiing in general, are a bright spot for a town that might otherwise feel left behind by history.
This segment aired on January 14, 2012.
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