U.S. Paralympic Nordic Ski team director John Farra couldn’t be more thrilled to have Andy Soule back on his team this season, and that’s not just for Soule’s skills on skis.
The United States’ first medalist in Paralympic or Olympic biathlon at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, Soule took the last two years off to go back to school to study ballistics in Oklahoma City. Now he is back in shape and kicking off the Nordic season this week with the first World Cup event of the winter in Vuokatti, Finland.
“He’s a ballistics specialist; he can pick apart rifles, build his own and service them,” Farra said during a telephone interview on Monday. “We’re thrilled to have him back even if it is for selfish reasons.”
Farra joked that Soule could service all of their rifles.
“Who knows, maybe he’ll be our go to guy,” he said. “We have kind of a unique sport. Yes people are shooting air rifles all over the world, but ours go out in frigid snow and weather, so it’s different. It beats up the rifles, so it would be great to have someone who knows all about it.”
But of course Farra, who has been making major changes to the Nordic program since taking it over about a year and a half ago, is also thrilled to have Soule back because he is one of the team’s best hopefuls to qualify for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
“If we can get him causing trouble in Sochi and have him beat some Russians in Sochi that would be the icing on the cake,” Farra said of the Army veteran who had both his legs amputated a few inches above the knee after the Humvee in which he was riding in Afghanistan in 2005 was destroyed by a roadside bomb.
Soule is in Finland along with teammate Navy Lt. Dan Cnossen.
“Andy and I are currently in Finland and have completed one cross country 10km race thus far,” Cnossen said via email. “We both had some of our best ‘percentage back’ from the race winner, so it’s a good start, but we definitely need to build on it.”
In Soule’s absence last season, Cnossen was Team USA’s top performer, collecting several top-10 finishes in biathlon and cross country.
Farra said he only sent Soule and Cnossen to Finland this week because he wanted to give the other members of the National Team (Marine veteran Erik Frazier, Air Force veteran Sean Halsted and retired Army Reservist Jeremy Wagner) more time to train on the home front.
“Those are our two top performers, and I offered it to them if they felt it was important to go, but I also would’ve been just fine with them staying with us at our High Performance camp in Winter Park, Colo.,” Farra said of Soule and Cnossen. “A lot of our athletes don’t have experience traveling overseas multiple times over the winter; that’s a challenge.
“I encouraged the developing skiers to stay and train and work on technique and spend less time traveling and more time training in the month of December.”
The team’s travel budget will get another break Jan. 10-21 when the United States hosts an IPC Nordic World Cup event in Cable, Wis. And the season will conclude in Sochi in March at the site of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
“Only the top performers are going,” Farra said of the Sochi meet this season. “I’m putting it out as a carrot for the end of the season. Anyone who is really overachieving will get to go. I want it to be an elite group focused on winning medals next season.”
The team this year also has two more military veterans than last year. And while he actively recruits military veterans because of their drive and ability to shoot, Farra said he doesn’t like to stick them in a box.
“I’m pretty careful not to differentiate,” he said when asked how the military background of his athletes helps them bond. “I respect one’s history, but at the same time it doesn’t matter to me where you came from. What matters is that you bring professionalism and are fired up to do the job.
“To me it isn’t a big focus. But for us we like to recruit more military guys because I think it’s a great fit because of their shooting ability and hard work to Nordic ski. Outside of that, whoever skies fast and shoots straight can make this team.”
Since taking the job, Farra has made a concerted effort to rebrand the team as a Nordic ski team in its marketing efforts and in its logos rather than as a cross country and biathlon team.
“It’s not a team everyone knows as easily, but what we’re doing is we’re saying, ‘We know you like biathlon, but you’re going to do cross country races too because you don’t become a biathlon star if you’re never effective at cross country.’ ”
Farra said they are also starting to do a better job of “telling their story,” and part of that was putting out a recruiting video on YouTube recently.
“You have to really dig deep in a race, and a lot of that comes from the training and conditioning,” Cnossen says in the video. “Every day we’ve been training and training and training hard, but the reward can be greater than a sport that is easier.”
In the video the team’s coach James Upham says, “It’s just the beginning of a pretty serious plan developed by the Olympic Committee, the Paralympic part of the U.S. Olympic Committee, to get more high-end athletes involved in the sport. Certain classes, certain kinds of athletes are able to become internationally competitive pretty quickly. What we’re looking for is someone who is looking to train hard. If you want to work harder than everyone else out there, every day, that’s actually what that means.”
Farra was encouraged by the fact that there were 25 adaptive athletes at nationals last year compared to four or five adaptive athletes at nationals in past years. This year’s national championships will be Jan. 3-9 at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, the site of the 2002 Paralympic competition.
“That’s the kind of progress we need to be successful long term, to have more than a handful of people like Andy who commit their life to it,” Farra said of the growing numbers of adaptive athletes in his sport. “So that’s the exciting part for us as we develop the sport, for sure.”