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Go For The Gold: Jeremy Wagner

Go For The Gold

BY SCOTTIE BIBB I NOV. 13, 2013

Jeremy Wagner competes at the 2013 International Paralympic
Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis.

Most winter sports athletes don’t say “hello” and “goodbye” with an enthusiastic “Aloha!”

And most elite athletes possess some degree of athletic experience before deciding to pursue the Paralympic Movement.

But Jeremy Wagner is not your typical elite athlete.

Not only is he the only native Hawaiian to participate in U.S. Paralympics biathlon, but Wagner also never even competed in sports as a youth.

“We don’t have a lot of opportunity to go skiing in Hawaii,” Wagner said. “There’s not a lot a snow where I come from!”

The change began in 2007 when Wagner, a retired Army Reservist who served a tour of duty in Iraq, shattered his L1 vertebra in a motorcycle accident. Following his rehabilitation in the Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., he returned home to Hawaii where he took up outrigger canoeing to aid his rehabilitation efforts.

“My injury was a major life-changing event,” he said. “It made me reevaluate and start focusing on things that I’d put off my entire life — things that I wanted to focus on but I couldn’t seem to find the time to do before.”

One of those things was getting more in touch with his Hawaiian heritage.

“Outrigger canoeing is huge in Hawaii,” he said. “It’s a big part of our culture.”

Wagner connected with an outrigger canoeing club in Hawaii, but it was not able to accommodate an adaptive paddler. So a club member directed Wagner to another club that consisted entirely of adaptive athletes.

A physical therapist from the SCI Center had piqued Wagner’s interest in competing in other adaptive sports, and he decided to participate in the VA’s 2010 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Denver.

It was while competing in that event that Wagner drew the attention of the coaching staff of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Team.

“I was participating in billiards, swimming, weightlifting, basketball and slalom,” Wagner recalled. “During the slalom event, I missed an obstacle and went off course. I didn’t panic and was forced to reassess and adjust. I guess that’s why they thought I might be good at biathlon. I remained calm.”

The U.S. Paralympics coaches encouraged Wagner to consider competing in biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting.

Introduced at the Innsbruck 1988 Paralympic Winter Games, biathlon consists of a 2- or 2.5-kilometer course skied three or five times for a total race distance between 6 and 15 total kilometers. During the skiing portion of the race, the athletes must stop and shoot at two targets located at a distance of 10 meters.

Intrigued, Wagner decided to give the biathlon a try and, with the help of his cousin and her husband, who live in Denver, he moved to Colorado to train and see if biathlon was a good fit for him.

“I love living in Colorado,” Wagner said. “I guess I still get to be on the water, it’s just a different form of water.”

While he admits that the temperature difference between Hawaii and Colorado is a bit extreme, Wagner sees only the positive aspects of the relocation.

“My hometown of Nanakuli, Hawaii (on the island of Oahu), is a small town just like Fraser (Colorado, where he currently resides),” Wagner said. “Aside from the temperature change, I pretty much just look at it as a lateral transfer.”

“You can ask any of my teammates,” he added. “I can’t seem to let go of that Hawaii sunshine. Even if it’s 30 degrees out I’m still in a tank top. It’s amazing how your body can acclimatize.”

He is now part of a program created by Winter Park Resort’s National Sports Center for the Disabled, a Paralympic Sports Club, which helps train skiers to for elite competition.

When they’re not training on the slopes of Winter Park, Wagner and his training mates are hitting the trails northwest of Denver on mountain boards.

“Mountain boards are essentially the same as our sit-ski boards, they’re just on wheels,” Wagner said. “It’s the same rig we use to ski on.”

“Although,” Wagner explained, “whether we’re on mountain boards or our regular rig we’re all trying to push the limit and carry as much speed as we can.”

In the months leading up to the start of the 2013-14 season, Wagner and his training mates attended five high-performance training camps, two of which were conducted at U.S. Olympic Training Centers, one in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the other in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“It was fantastic to attend the training camp in Colorado Springs,” Wagner said. “We were able to train on a lot of different mountain trails in the area, which was great.”

Jeremy Wagner poses during the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional shoot on April 23, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

The athletes spent their time dialing in shooting positions, sit-skiing on mountain boards, working on improving overall strength in the weight room and learning about nutrition. The camps allowed Wagner to prioritize his goals for the upcoming season, as well as ratchet up his competitive skills.

“You train as hard as you can at home, and you think that you’re really pushing yourself,” Wagner said. “But, when you get together with your teammates, it really bumps your training up to another level. It really motivates you.”

Wagner said that while his coaches have been helping him focus on his technique the single biggest factor in his improvement has been the encouragement from his teammates.

“I’ve got these top guys that keep getting better, which pushes me to get better,” Wagner said. “Andy (Soule), and Sean (Halsted) have been on the Paralympic team before, so they know the huge amount of effort that they have to put in. Lieutenant Dan Cnossen is a former Navy SEAL, so he really knows how to train hard.”

The competitive environment of his training regimen seems to be paying off.

In June 2012, Wagner was named to the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team. Shortly thereafter, he made his world team debut at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Championships in Solleftea, Sweden.

Although Wagner left the competition without a medal, he is determined to remain positive about his first international competitive experience.

“I went there (Sweden) without any ridiculous fantasies of knocking out guys who have been doing this for 10 or 15 years,” he said. “It was a tough course, but I took away a lot of positives from the experience and didn’t dwell on the negatives.”

Wagner’s 2013-14 competitive season includes the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup in Canmore, Canada, and the U.S. Adaptive Nordic National Championships, scheduled for January 2014 at Soldier Hollow, Midway, Utah.

Both these events will be used in the selection process for the 2014 Paralympic Nordic Skiing Team. The IPC has allotted the United States 17 spots (12 men, five women) in the Nordic skiing (biathlon and cross-country skiing) competition for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

Wagner hopes that his results at these events will be enough to help him fulfill a dream: qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

“I don’t know if there are words for how I would feel accomplishing that goal,” he said. “If you have something that you want to accomplish, there is no better feeling than being able to put a check mark next to the goal you’ve been trying to attain.

“For me, I’ve spent the last two years working really hard to meet that standard and make it to the Games.”

His quick ascent to the top echelon of the sport is undeniable; however, Wagner feels that his lack of athletic history might actually work to his advantage.

“I just do what I’m told,” he laughed. “The coaches tell me what to do when they send out their training plan. They’ve been working with me a lot on technique, though I guess because I don’t have any bad habits to break, it’s probably a little bit easier for them.”

Wagner said that he is “focusing on one event at a time.”

“If I do make the team and go to Sochi, then I’ll need to shift my goals to focus on what I want to accomplish while I’m there,” he said. “After that, I’ll need to take another look and reevaluate. I have no idea what life has in store for me!”

Wagner, who speaks “a bit” of Hawaiian and plays the ukulele, vows to remain true to his Hawaiian heritage. He also admitted that his heritage might cause him to stray from winter sports.

“Outrigger canoeing (para-canoe) is going to be an inaugural event in at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro,” he said. “The possibility of being able to compete in that is always going to be in the back of my mind.”

In the meantime, Wagner said that his main focus is qualifying for Sochi.

“It would be such an honor to be selected to represent my country and my team,” he said. “I just want to go out and do the very best I can.”

“It takes a lot of training to make the team,” he continued. “There is a huge pool of people who want to be a part of it. Being chosen to be part of such a select group will really be something special if I get to be a part of that.”

Scottie Bibb is a writer from Colorado. She is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.