Aaron Pike competes at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 15, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Paralympian Aaron Pike hates being asked whether he likes competing in summer or winter sports better because it’s like asking a parent to choose which kid they like best.
He loves wheelchair racing every bit as much as he enjoys being on snow competing in Para biathlon and cross-country skiing, and for years now he’s mixed both with great success.
For Pike, the schedule flipped from winter to summer this week.
Pike was set to compete in three events at the Para Biathlon World Championships, slated to be held March 12-15 before that event’s cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pike made new plans to head to Champaign, Illinois. That will be the hub for the next several months as Pike prepares to qualify for and compete in the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, what would be his third Summer Games and his fifth Paralympic Games overall.
“With this constant flow I enjoy one and then start missing the other after I’ve been on the one for a while,” he said of being a multi-sport athlete. “I like the back and forth. And they are very compatible, luckily.”
It was just over a year ago that Pike, 33, broke through and won his first championship medal when he took bronze in biathlon sprint at the 2019 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships. When that season ended, he turned his attention to track and field.
He was fourth at the Boston Marathon as the top American after winner Daniel Romanchuk, then placed ninth at the London Marathon to start the season. In the fall, he placed fourth in the New York Marathon and sixth in the Chicago Marathon, both times again the top American after Romanchuk. From Chicago he went straight to the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, where for the first time in his career he made the finals in the men’s 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter racing against the best in the world.
“That was definitely a confidence booster to see that I was making the finals and right there in the hunt,” he said. “One you’re in the final anything can happen in that sport because it’s a lot of tactics. It was great for me to do that leading up to Tokyo.”
Competing in Dubai in November meant that Pike had a later start on the ski season than he’s accustomed to, which meant that he was still getting himself into form as the world cup season was underway.
Although both his summer and winter sports require a lot of endurance, they use different muscle groups. The engine is there, Pike explained, but it takes a while to get the muscle strength back going from wheelchair racing, in which he’s pushing, to sit-skiing, in which he’s pulling.
He also believes going between both has helped him stay strong in both.
“I’m staying healthy; I haven’t had a single injury in the last 10 years that’s taken me out of competition,” he said. “I think it’s keeping my body well-balanced and I’m not getting overuse injuries. I could see burning the body out if you’re doing one sport over such a long period of time. That’s the good side. The bad side is you lose the specific strength for those sports and that’s the hardest thing to get back.”
Most seasons Pike wouldn’t be on snow this late for that very reason. He typically skips the last event of the season so that he can start transitioning back to wheelchair racing and be ready for the spring marathons.
“I marked it off at the beginning of the season when we were finishing our performance plan,” he said. “I marked it off and that was that.”
This season, however, the last event was going to be the world championships, which for the first time would have been a standalone biathlon worlds instead of both biathlon and cross-country skiing at the same event, and the coaching staff wanted him to compete. They asked what he’d need in order to train in Bozeman, Montana, the way he trains in Champaign for track and field, and when he told them rollers, they agreed to buy a setup that would match what he had in Illinois.
Pike puts his racing chair on rollers so he can push indoors, and there’s also a bike trainer retrofitted onto the roller so he can add resistance and mimic climbing hills and racing outside.
“It just makes it more realistic and sport-specific,” he said. “Usually my forearms aren’t ready and it takes a while for my forearms, wrists and hands to adjust so with the resistance you’re able to get the hope is that the transition will be even quicker and I won’t miss a beat, hopefully.”