|Two-time Paralympian Andy Soule, a retired U.S. Army Specialist, earned five medals at January's IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships in Cable, Wisconsin.|
The U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Team is on its way up.
At the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, Team USA's Oksana Masters and Tatyana McFadden earned a combined three cross-country skiing medals – the first for U.S. women in Paralympic cross-country skiing since 1994. Both had reached the podium before at the summer Games, in rowing and track & field, respectively. But they were winter-sport rookies, having spent less than two full seasons on snow.
Last week at the 2015 IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships in Cable, Wisconsin, Army veteran and 2010 biathlon bronze medalist Andy Soule showed that the U.S. men are improving, too. Soule raced to the podium five times – the most, by far, for a U.S. athlete in recent history. After finishing painfully close to medal position several times at the Sochi Games, Soule’s five-medal performance in Cable was a rewarding sign of progress. Masters added to the U.S. haul with two world championship medals of her own.
Soule wasn’t the only U.S. athlete who narrowly missed out on medal opportunities in Sochi. Masters and McFadden each recorded at least one fourth-place finish, while newcomer Jake Adicoff earned an impressive sixth-place in the visually impaired class.
Both Sochi and the world championships were a celebration of success, but they also marked stepping stones in the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing program’s larger goal – to be among best in the world, contending with powerhouses like Russia and Ukraine on a consistent basis.
“The medals really helped us, because obviously we had those experiences dancing in the streets and celebrating the fun part,” said U.S. Para Nordic High Performance Director John Farra. “But all the close calls gave us a vision that it’s not just the three medals that give us hope for our program. We’re improving and going in the right direction.”
Sustained competitive excellence – it’s in the United States Olympic Committee’s mission statement.
Yet while the U.S. celebrated its three Nordic medals, Russia collected 62 of its 80 total medals from Sochi in cross-country skiing or biathlon events. All 25 of Ukraine’s medals were won in Nordic.
Farra sees that as a challenge. He’s determined that to close the gap – and he’s on a strategic mission to make it happen.
Farra came to the U.S. Paralympics Nordic program in 2011 after serving as the Nordic director at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association for three years. A 1992 Olympian in cross-country skiing, Farra began his position at U.S. Paralympics with several strategies to grow the Nordic program before the Sochi Games.
One of those strategies included recruiting athletes from summer endurance sports – like Masters, a 2012 Paralympic rowing bronze medalist, and Tatyana McFadden, a three-time Paralympic champion in wheelchair track & field.
“One of our strategies is when we meet endurance athletes, especially in the sitting class who do a summer sport, we let them know that our sport can be a really good cross-training tool,” Farra said. “For those who are already fit and come from an endurance sport, they can pick up our sport pretty quick.”
He also increased recruitment efforts at the grassroots level, hiring two full-time staff members to identify athletes at regional clubs, work with them at development camps and encourage them to compete at the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Championships.
Once athletes reach the elite level, Farra and his technical team are committed to having them on the fastest and most efficient skis possible. Prior to the 2014 Games, each athlete’s skis were engineered to be specifically compatible with the Sochi snow.
“We truly believe we had the fastest skis in Sochi. At least, nobody’s were faster than ours,” Farra said. “That’s one part of our program that has matured and hit on all cylinders. You don’t win medals without fast skis. There’s no, ‘Oh, that’s close enough’ – because that’s not what our athletes deserve.”
The investment paid off, as the U.S. sent 18 Nordic athletes to the Sochi Games – an increase from the six that competed at Vancouver in 2010. With seven retired and one active-duty service member, the military presence on the Nordic team was higher than that of any other U.S. team at the Games.
This season, athletes in the sitting class are working to further customize their sit-skis based on specific body positioning and technique. The team also trained this fall in ski tunnels in Germany and Austria as part of an effort to increase their early-season days on snow.
At a September camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, sitting athletes worked on their ski pole stroke technique using a specially-designed indoor treadmill with video analysis and a power meter.
“We gave the athletes the opportunity to see their technique in real time and make adjustments so they can feel that adjustment and see it in the camera,” Farra said. “And we did measurements with power, which allowed us to kind of test different theories. We can feel it and see it, and we’ve also got the power data that shows us whether it’s translating to a better and more efficient technique.”
Farra knows that meaningful change takes time. And while the team had ambitious goals for Sochi, he said the true focus of the program is on the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“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.”
In order for Farra’s team to keep implementing the technical innovations and recruitment strategies that will put them on track for success, they need the financial resources to support those projects.
International training camps are costly. Equipment customized for individual athletes, while necessary to be competitive on the world stage, can also take a financial toll.
“We’ve gotten our top athletes on snow each month since early September, which is a pretty expensive strategy, but the right strategy for some of our athletes who need that snow time,” Farra said. “Oksana, for example, didn’t need fitness – she needed snow time. She needed to actually be on snow and learn how to move that sit-ski over the white stuff.”
Unlike Russia, Ukraine and other international competitors, the USOC does not receive government funding. Therefore, it is up to the American public to provide such support.
Through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, Americans can give to support programs like U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing at a variety of levels. With a Team USA Athlete or Sport Endowment, donors can provide a source of funding in perpetuity for a specific sport or program. Gifts to the Paralympic Champions Fund also provide direct support to U.S. Paralympic athletes and the high performance programs that support them.