At the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, Team USA sent six athletes total to compete in the sports of biathlon and cross-country skiing. The event was highlighted by Army veteran Andy Soule, who earned the United States’ first-ever Olympic or Paralympic medal in biathlon with a third place finish.
Fast forward. The U.S. will send 17 athletes to the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games to compete in biathlon and cross-country skiing, with most set to compete in both of the sports.
Team USA will be bigger.
Team USA can be better.
Soule, who earned medals on last season's world cup circuit, is a top hopeful for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team along with Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen and Oksana Masters. Both are world cup medalists heading into Sochi.
One of the sport’s biggest influencers has been John Farra, a 1992 Olympic cross-country skier, who was hired as the high performance director for Paralympic Nordic skiing by the United States Olympic Committee in 2011. (In the U.S., Paralympic biathlon and cross-country are governed together under the Nordic skiing program, although biathlon and cross-country are separate sports at the Winter Games.)
After ending his athletic career with the U.S. Ski Team, he became the Nordic program director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, serving from 2008-11. He led the cross-country, ski jumping and Nordic combined teams to six world championship and four Olympic medals during his tenure.
When Farra transitioned to the Paralympic side, the program was also transitioning from U.S. Ski and Snowboard management into its own program run through U.S. Paralympics, a division of the USOC.
Nearly three years later, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing program has changed its focus and intensity in several key areas. And this may just be the beginning.
Recruiting at the grassroots level
Before Farra, recruiting was seen as something done by local ski clubs, not the national team.
“The concept was, at the time, that people will come,” said Sean Halsted, a 2010 U.S. Paralympian who began training with the national team in 2006. “We don't need to work on development or spend that much on recruiting; that’s somebody else’s job. Our job is to go make faster skiers faster, but first you have to make it to the national team.”
“From my experience, I didn't know where to go,” U.S. Paralympian Sean Halsted said of his early attempts to make the U.S. Paralympic Team. With that in mind, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Program now has a strong recruitment aspect.
For Halsted, there was a gap between the process of learning to use an adaptive ski for the first time and improving to the top level of the sport.
“From my experience, I didn't know where to go,” Halsted said. “I didn’t know how to go from being this person just experiencing snow for the first time, with people telling you, ‘You’re fast, you need to go to the Paralympics!’ And you take that and say, ‘Okay, how am I supposed to go do that?’”
Farra has worked to close that gap by hiring two full-time recruiting coaches whose job is to reach out to skiers at regional clubs, bring them to development camps and encourage them to race at the U.S. Nordic Adaptive National Championships.
“One of the strategies we’ve utilized is instead of holding a high performance camp in one place and a development camp in one place, we just put them together,” Farra said. “We make sure we have enough staff to handle the newbies, and that we have enough quality staff to handle the high performance piece and maximize those athletes’ opportunities.”
The recruiting staff focuses on identifying both promising talent and attitude in emerging athletes, making sure to keep an open line of communication between the athlete, the local ski club and the U.S. Paralympics program.
“Having an experienced group of staff that can recruit the right type of personalities and experience levels has helped a lot,” said U.S. Paralympics Nordic Head Coach James Upham. “Anyone could go to an event and get people fired up, but that’s the easy part. The hard and really important part is the follow-up, so that they can get to the next camp, work through any obstacles and get set up with the right equipment.”
The focus on recruiting requires coaches like Upham and Eileen Carey, a coach who also acts as a guide for visually impaired skiers on the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team, to be versatile in their coaching abilities at all levels.
“We have really emphasized development,” Carey said. “This often means coaches on the world cup circuit one week and teaching someone to ski the next. The hope is that this builds the Nordic community as a whole and pushes the top end closer to the podium.”
Getting serious about tech
Over the past few years, Farra and his team have worked harder than ever before to ensure their athletes are working with the best possible equipment. In Farra’s opinion, Team USA should never be beaten because of an inferior ski – and the U.S. Paralympic Team should receive the same elite-level technology that any Olympic team would.
“When I came on, everyone had their own kind of sit-ski, and how they were connected to the ski was unique, and by doing that they all had to race on their own skis,” Farra said. “Part of being an international ski racer is being on the fastest possible combination of skis, the right wax, all that. So basically we created our own sit-ski attachment system.”
Farra calls it the “Sochi Fast Ski Project.” He had every member of the national team take his or her frame to a welder to attach it to the new, uniform skis which all national team members now use. The skis were even tested on Sochi snow last season, at the world cup final, so that they would be best suited to the conditions the athletes will see at the Paralympic Winter Games Games.
“We want to make sure they’re on the fastest skis every single day, giving them the best chance to win. We’re definitely miles ahead of where we were two years ago,” Farra said. “The athletes don’t get to ski over rocks and stones with them; we only use them on race days. They’re the best skis in the world.”
Farra has also encouraged his athletes to test various positions and weights for their sit-skis and lengths for their poles, surveying each of these through video analysis with the goal of zeroing in on the best possible combination in time for Sochi.
Thinking in the long term
Though Farra and the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing Team would like to bring home some hardware from Sochi, the vision for the program reaches far beyond 2014. Most of the recruiting and development initiatives the Nordic staff has put in place are ultimately focused on the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. There, earning top world rankings and winning medals will not just be the hope, but the expectation.
“Four years from now in Korea, it’s not going to be about stealing medals. It’s going to be the expectation and what we should be able to accomplish,” Farra said. “It’s a long-term process in Nordic. You can’t make a Nordic athlete overnight, and we’re fully aware of that. But sure, we want to see what we can accomplish in Sochi.”
Several members of the national team have already earned top-five finishes on the international circuit, including Halsted and Soule. Rookies Cnossen and Tatyana McFadden, a three-time Paralympic gold medalist in track and field, have also seen success in their bids for their first U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing Team.
Team USA’s biggest competition in Sochi will be the Russian team, which has maxed out its allotment of athletes at 30.
Halsted believes that even though the long-term focus is on 2018, Team USA is capable of surprising in Sochi.
“There is that potential right now, where there are a handful of us who could at any moment pull a rabbit out of a hat if all systems align for this one race,” Halsted said.
And then there’s Coach Upham’s philosophy:
“Do the work, and make sure you’re thinking every day that at the end of the race, there’s an awards ceremony, and somebody’s national anthem is played, and someone’s flag is going up on the flagpole. It doesn’t matter whose anthem it is. What matters is that when that happens, it’s kind of a gut check for you. Did you do everything you could to do well? Are you satisfied with how you performed, how hard you worked, and how smart you were leading up to the Games?”
The U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Team officially began its Road to Sochi at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, earlier this week. On Day 1, Masters won her first ever world cup medal, a bronze.