Soule's medal an historic feat
It was a day of firsts for U.S. biathlete Andy Soule (Pearland, Texas). On the first day of competition, at his first Paralympic Games, Soule won his first Paralympic medal, the first medal of the Games for the United States. Soule's bronze medal in the 2.4km pursuit is also the first biathlon medal won by an American in the either the Olympic or the Paralympic Winter Games.
"Andy Soule made history today," said Max Cobb, executive director of US Biathlon. "Andy did an amazing job today, coming from behind in the last loop, even with one penalty. It was a spectacular performance and I couldn't be more proud of him."
Three hours after his historic biathlon podium Soule still had not been given a chance to catch his breath. Ducking through the athlete village, everyone he passed wanted to talk to him and congratulate him.
Soule came a long way to help break the US out of its medal drought. He began cross-country skiing in 2005, when he was introduced to the sport at a camp in Sun Valley, Idaho, but he did not become serious about biathlon until 2008.
"He's come an enormous way," said US biathlon coach James Upham.
Upham first began working with Soule at a 2008 biathlon camp in Utah. Soule was a decent skier and had raw shooting ability and comfort with a rifle from his time serving in the U.S. Army, but his technique needed to be changed to better fit the biathlon.
"He had the ability, we just had to focus him on specific biathlon shooting," Upham said.
Historically, American Paralympic biathletes have always been strong skiers, where they have struggled has been with shooting.
Two years ago, US Biathlon began administering Paralympic biathlon and the focus of the program shifted slightly.
"It's more of a focus on shooting and more of a premium on biathlon racing for some athletes that can do well, like Andy," Upham said.
This year it all clicked. Soule finished the 2009-10 world cup season having registered his first world cup victory and narrowly missed the overall world cup podium. Soule entered the Games skiing better than he ever had before and was considered a medal contender in the 12.5km event.
The 2.4km pursuit is a much harder race to predict.
"This race you're not sure what's going to happen," Upham said. "If you make any mistakes at all you're going to be off the podium for sure."
Soule did not make any mistakes. He hit 19 of 20 shots and came from behind, picking off one racer after another with his strong finishing kick.
"It felt just incredible," Soule said. "I've had World Cup wins and World Cup podiums before, but there's nothing quite like this, in this atmosphere, in front of a crowd here with everyone watching."
Having broken the biathlon drought, Soule will race in the 15km on March 14 and the 12.5km biathlon on March 17. If he continues to ski and shoot at this level, Soule will have to wait until Closing Ceremonies to catch his breath.