U.S. Paralympics Nordic team gearing up for Nationals

By Caryn Maconi | Jan. 01, 2014, 3:14 p.m. (ET)
Oksana Masters 

Oksana Masters, who recently earned a bronze medal at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, is set to compete at the 2014 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Championship.

The United States’ top adaptive Nordic skiers are ready to shine on the national stage.

Coming off of strong performances at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, Team USA’s top Nordic skiers will compete at the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Championship at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, from Jan. 2-10.

Because U.S. Nationals are sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee, points awarded for top results can help athletes qualify for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games. The event is one of the last chances for U.S. athletes to hit the Sochi eligibility standard and move up the ranking list to secure a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team.   

The event will take place alongside the able-bodied U.S. Nordic Skiing National Championship, something U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing High Performance Director John Farra said is a good thing for the growth of Paralympic sport.

“If we can integrate our standing athletes into our able-bodied field and find a course that works for sit-ski athletes as well, then they can be a part of something bigger, which feels a lot more rewarding than racing two other people in a sit-ski race by themselves,” Farra said. “So we’re doing as much as we can to integrate with the already-existing structure, including the U.S. National Championships.”

The U.S. national team raced well at the Alberta World Cup in early December against a dominant Russian field. Team USA collected several top-10 finishes throughout the week-long competition, with Oksana Masters’ cross-country bronze medal and a fourth-place biathlon finish by Andy Soule highlighting the results.

Soule, a Vancouver 2010 Paralympic bronze medalist, and Masters, who is new to Nordic skiing but is a Paralympic champion in rowing, are each likely to impress again at Soldier Hollow. Another top contender is Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen, whose podium at the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., was named as one of the Top 13 Moments of 2013 by U.S. Paralympics.

Farra expects the United States’ sit-ski athletes to have standout performances, especially on the men’s side in Soule, Cnossen and 2010 Paralympian Sean Halsted. Breakthrough athletes Aaron Pike and Tatyana McFadden, who were teammates on the wheelchair track and field team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, could also surprise.

“Aaron and Tatyana both came in at a really high level of fitness, and we just need to continue to work on the technical side,” Farra said. “That’s what this winter will be about for those two, just learning how to turn corners on slippery, icy white stuff.”

In addition to top Sochi 2014 Paralympic hopefuls, competition at nationals will include a strong contingent of developing athletes. In fact, encouraging new skiers to compete at the national championship is one of Farra’s top priorities in terms of recruitment.

“We’ve focused on making the national championships the big event you need to go to if you’re considering being a Nordic skier, because you get together as a community and because it’s the biggest competition,” Farra said. “We had 30 Americans last year at Nationals, and I hope to keep building upon that figure if we’re really going to be an international power four to eight years from now.”

Halsted, who has been competing at the national team level since 2006, said he continues to see an increase in participation at nationals year after year.

“It used to be that you’d have five or so sit-skiers at nationals, and you’d race each other, and there you go, there’s your national team,” Halsted said. “And then the first nationals after Vancouver, there were six or eight male sit-skiers, and at nationals the year after that, there were 10 or 15, and last year we had upwards of 20. So just looking at those numbers, you definitely see a difference. “

This year, Farra hopes to see 30 or more competitors, though the participant list has not yet been finalized.

Eileen Carey, a coach who also serves as a guide for visually-impaired athletes on the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team, said the recent successes of the Unites States’ top athletes are indicative of future growth for the sport as a whole.

“We are improving as individuals and as a team every session, every training camp, and every race,” Carey said. “We have a lot of athletes with lofty goals who are making measurable progress toward those goals in a very short time frame. As a program our objective is to make sure that we have maximized every asset and resource to help our athletes achieve their goals. When that happens, I think you’ll want to be watching!”

Results from the U.S. Nordic Adaptive National Championship can be found at USCrossCountryChamps2014.com following each day of competition.

The U.S. Team that will compete at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will be named no later than Jan. 31, 2014, and will be determined on a points system that includes world cup results throughout the season. Team USA will send 17 athletes in total to compete in cross-country skiing and biathlon events.