Aaron Pike’s introduction to Para Nordic skiing didn’t start off on the best note.
“I broke the equipment in I think less than 10 minutes,” he recalled.
Looking back, that first ride feels like a lifetime ago.
A few months after Pike’s 2012 Paralympic debut in track and field, he found himself at a Nordic skiing camp in Bozeman, Montana. And when he crested a hill in his test equipment, Pike didn’t think much of it as he began sliding down the other side.
“I went down a hill and realized I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
An official got Pike set up with a new sit ski and shadowed him the rest of the day, making sure he didn’t try anything else before he was ready. In retrospect, though, Pike’s fearlessness in those first few minutes might have foreshadowed what was to come.
The next winter, in 2014, Pike made his Paralympic Winter Games debut in cross-country skiing and biathlon. And after competing in another Paralympic wheelchair marathon in 2016 in Rio, Pike enters the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 with what might be his best chance yet of earning a medal.
The 31-year-old Pike is coming off a season in which he finished fourth at the world championships in individual biathlon and fifth in sprint-distance biathlon, while also posting two top-10 finishes in cross-country skiing.
“That’s literally one shot off the podium,” he said of the individual biathlon result. “Had I hit one more shot, I’d be on the podium.”
It’s been a long journey for Pike, and a steep learning curve in Nordic skiing.
Although Pike lists his hometown as being Park Rapids, a town of 4,000 in the heart of Minnesota’s lake country, Nordic skiing was never part of his childhood. In fact, even Park Rapids only played cameos in his upbringing.
An Air Force brat, Pike lived in northern Minnesota for about a year before making stops in South Dakota, Idaho and Virginia, and then ultimately graduating from Ramstein American High School in Germany. (With family still in Park Rapids, Pike returned often and still considers it his hometown.)
Even with all of the moving around, Pike was an active kid, more likely to be playing backyard football than sitting in the living room watching TV. And even when a hunting injury left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 13, sports remained a big part of his life.
In the hospital, Pike met Carlos Moleda, who had been a Navy SEAL, suffered a similar injury and then gone on to win Ironman triathlons in the handcycle division. Inspired, Pike took up wheelchair basketball and track and field, and after high school he enrolled at the University of Illinois, a school known for its adaptive sports programs.
Pike thrived, winning two wheelchair basketball national titles with the Illini while training on the track amongst a host of future Paralympic stars, including Tatyana McFadden.
Pike followed McFadden to the Paralympic Games, making his debut in 2012 in London, where he finished 16th in the marathon. But still, to that point he’d never been on skis.
“A completely new thing,” he said.
That changed after the London Games when, looking for an opportunity to cross-train, Pike found himself at the camp in Bozeman.
“I went out and tried skiing and kind of fell in love with it really quick,” he said.
At first wary of competing in a second sport, Pike found that wheelchair racing and Nordic skiing complemented each other, and he saw that athletes such as South Africa’s Ernst van Dyk, a seven-time Paralympic medalist, were able to compete two sports at a high level.
So he gave it a shot.
Although the two sports complement each other, they have key differences, such as positioning oneself more tucked down in a racing chair and upright in a sit ski. For whatever reason, Pike has also found it’s much easier to go from skiing to marathons than the other way around.
“If I spent all summer training really hard for marathons and jumped in a 15K ski race, I’d still be getting my butt kicked out there if I didn’t have any time on snow,” he said.
At least he had some experience in shooting for biathlon, and for the rest he leaned on his coaches and veteran athletes such as Sean Halsted, who will compete in his third Paralympics in PyeongChang.
With their support, Pike made his Winter Paralympic debut in 2014 in Sochi, where he placed as high as 12th in the cross-country long-distance race. Then, turning his focus back to wheelchair racing, Pike was 10th in the Paralympic marathon in 2016 in Rio. Now the focus is back on Nordic skiing, where he’s optimistic for a breakthrough.
“Shooting has improved a ton in the last year, so that’s kind of put me at a high level where I can shine from the short distance all the way to the long distance in biathlon,” he said.
It’s been a long journey for Pike to get to his fourth Paralympic Games, but looking back at all of his work in both sports, he says it was all worth it.
“I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at in four years right now skiing had I not had that long wheelchair racing background,” he said.