Fourteen facts: Cross-country skiing

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Feb. 04, 2014, 11 a.m. (ET)
Andy Soule
Andy Soule, who was injured while serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, is competing in biathlon and cross-country at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

The Paralympic Winter Games are March 7-16, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. With 114 medals up for grabs in 38 Nordic skiing events, up to 200 athletes will compete in biathlon and cross-country skiing, which are separate sports at the Games. Get ready for Sochi with these 14 facts on cross-country skiing:

Oksana Masters
Oksana Masters is one of the top medal hopefuls for Team USA in cross-country skiing at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

Back to the beginning

Cross-country skiing was one of the sports in the first-ever Paralympic Winter Games, held in 1976 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. Men and women used the classical technique in all cross-country distances until skating was introduced by athletes at the Innsbruck 1984 Paralympic Winter Games. Since then, events have been split into two separate races: classical and free technique. The new technique, however, was not officially used in a medal race until 1992 in Albertville, France.

Legacy of Lillehammer

The Lillehammer 1994 Paralympic Winter Games marked the first time Nordic skiers, both in biathlon and cross-country skiing, competed at the same venues used for the Olympic Winter Games.

Numbers in Nagano

The largest cross-country skiing competition at the Paralympic Winter Games was in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, when 213 athletes from 24 countries raced in 39 medal events. Team USA won two bronze medals in that competition.

Location, location

The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will host the cross-country events where the biathlon events are also held, in a venue named "Laura" after the Laura River. Laura, located in the mountain cluster with alpine skiing and snowboarding venues, has seats for over 7,500 spectators.

A site for champions

In November 2012, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation became an official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site for cross-country skiing. Wood River Ability Program, a Paralympic Sport Club, is the Paralympic sport provider for the official training site.

A trio of classifications

Cross-country skiing has three categories: standing, sit ski and visually impaired. The athletes are classified according to their disability and put into appropriate categories with scoring regulations tailored to their ability level. In the relay event, teams are made up of skiers from different categories, but each team as an equal ability overall. This means that no time calculation is required and the first team across the finish line wins.

Ski vs. sit-ski

For the standing and visually impaired cross-country skiing, athletes wear skis that are similar to the equipment of able-bodied athletes. Made from fiberglass, classical skis are usually 25-30 centimeters taller than the height of a skier. Free technique skis are about 10-15 cm shorter for greater maneuvering. They are also nominally stiffer and have tips that curve less than classical technique skis. The underside of both types of skis has a groove down the center to keep the ski straight when going downhill. Some athletes with a physical impairment compete from a sitting position using a sit-ski, which has a bucket like seat that is fixated to skis. The chair includes seat belts and other strapping, as well as a suspension device to minimize wear and tear on the skier's body.

Eyes on the prize

Athletes with a visual impairment can compete in cross-country skiing with a sighted guide. When the athlete medals at a Paralympic Winter Games, the guide also receives a medal.

Rule makers

Cross-country Skiing is governed by the International Paralympic Committee with coordination by the IPC Nordic Skiing Technical Committee following modified rules of the International Ski Federation (FIS), which oversees able-bodied cross-country skiing.

Going the distance

Male and female athletes compete in short distance, middle distance and long distance (ranging from 2.5-kilometers to 20km) at the Paralympic Winter Games. Athletes can also participate in a team relay.

Shining silver

Team USA won is first cross-country medal at the Innsbruck 1984 Paralympic Winter Games when Barbara Lewis, Laura Oftedahl, Jean Parker and Billie Ruth Schlank finished second in the women's 4x5 km relay B1-2. Heading into the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, it stands as the only women’s relay medal for the United States.

Cooking up medals

The United States’ most decorated cross-country skier at the Paralympic Winter Games is Steven Cook, who retired after the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. Cook, who had his right leg amputated below the knee following a farm accident, won seven total medals over two Games. He won four silver medals in 2002 and two gold medals and one bronze medal in 2006.

Saluting Sochi

More than half of the athletes nominated to the men’s team are military veterans: Omar Bermejo (Marines), Kevin Burton (Navy), Travis Dodson (Marines), Halsted (Air Force), Bryan Price (Army), Andy Soule (Army) and Jeremy Wagner (Army Reserves). Lieutenant Commander Dan Cnossen is the only active duty member of the team as he currently serves with the United States Navy.  

From London to Sochi

Four 2012 U.S. Paralympians will compete in cross-country skiing at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. Having just recently retired from cycling, Monica Bascio is one of three female athletes who medaled at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, joining Tatyana McFadden and Oksana Masters on the roster. McFadden is a 10-time Paralympic medalist in track and field, while Masters partnered with Rob Jones to become the first Americans to win a Paralympic rowing medal in the trunk and arms mixed double sculls event with their third place finish. On the men’s side, track and field athlete Aaron Pike will compete. 

— Traci Hendrix contributed to this report