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Nordic Skiing Has Quickly Gone From Recovery To Passion For Drew Shea

By Alex Abrams | Dec. 02, 2020, 10:04 a.m. (ET)

Less than two years after starting the sport, Shea is now training full time for biathlon in Utah. 


Drew Shea was excited to finally be able to do a pushup with his new arm. 

Shea had his left hand amputated after he was involved in an accident at age 21. He has a variety of prosthetic devices he can wear to help him when he’s cooking and doing daily tasks, but he wanted to return to the gym. 

It would be a sign that his life was getting back to normal. 

Shea recently received what he refers to as his “gym arm.” With the prosthetic, he can do different workouts and train even more for Para Nordic skiing. He can also get on the floor and do pushups like he did before his accident. 

“I’ve just been doing as many pushups as my body will allow, which has been super fun for me because I remember when I was first injured I was like one of the milestones will be when I can do a pushup,” Shea said. 

“I love just being able to do pushups.” 

Shea, 22, is less than two years removed from his accident, and Nordic skiing has become a major part of his recovery. He was introduced to the sport only a few months after he got injured, and what initially sounded like a cool thing to do has quickly developed into one of his passions. 

While Shea has prosthetic devices he can wear, including a “bionic” arm, he isn’t permitted to use any of them when he competes in Nordic skiing. He instead holds a ski pole with his right hand and races with one hand. 

After competing at a national event at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah, Shea was invited to join a club team there and work with their coaches. He didn’t need much time to consider it. 

Shea graduated from the University of South Carolina last spring, and he decided to move to Park City, Utah, in October to train full-time in the biathlon. 

“Long term I would definitely like to make the Paralympics. That would be great. That would be an amazing accomplishment,” Shea said. “But short term, like right now, I’m just looking to put in the work to be a proficient skier and shooter.  

“And I’ve got a lot of work obviously to become a Paralympian. But with that in mind, I’m able to work pretty hard throughout the work and (I’m) just trying to achieve those long-term goals.” 

Growing up in Vienna, Virginia, only a short drive from Washington D.C., Shea played mostly soccer and spent one year on his high school golf team. He didn’t consider himself much of a skier until he went on a family vacation to Snowmass, Colorado, when he was around 12 years old. 

Shea’s parents signed him up for a weeklong ski school in Snowmass.  

“And by like day 4 or 5, we had definitely gotten the hang of it and we were tearing down some (blue slopes) and stuff like that, nothing crazy,” Shea said. “But (I) definitely got pretty proficient at downhill skiing during that week, which was a lot of fun.” 

Everything changed, though, after his accident. 

A hand specialist introduced Shea to a man who had helped injured military veterans resume their normal lives. The man told Shea that the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was hosting a sports expo for individuals with physical impairments. 

“He was like ‘There’s a sports expo there, and I’d love for you to just walk around. I know you have an athletic background,’” Shea said. “(He said), ‘I know you love sports. I know you want to get back into sports, so this could be your ticket into finding something you really like in the Para world.’” 

Shea attended the sports expo, and as he walked through Walter Reed, he passed tables that had information about various Para sports.  

Shea saw a table for boxing, but he figured that wasn’t for him, and he saw another table for Para canoeing. He then came across the table for Nordic skiing. 

Kevin Bittenbender, a coach with U.S Paralympics Nordic Skiing, stood at the table and showed Shea a few videos about the sport. 

Shea said he was familiar with the biathlon from watching it in the Winter Olympics, and he thought it looked “super cool” with athletes skiing with rifles strapped to their backs. 

Soon afterward, Shea attended a training camp for Nordic skiing at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York.  

“I was like, man, this is a really cool opportunity for me, especially coming after this accident,’” Shea said. “(I was) like, hey, I’ve got a real opportunity to turn something that some people might be like, ‘Hey, that’s a real bummer’ into something like, ‘Wow, he’s got it going on.’” 

Since it was summertime, Shea learned in Lake Placid to Nordic ski on a pair of roller skis. He was also shown how to shoot a rifle for the biathlon.  

He has gotten the hang of both since then. 

“It was definitely an adjustment. I hadn’t Nordic skied before, so I got out there and I was definitely flailing around a little bit,” Shea said. “But I excelled, I guess, in having the feel of moving side to side and using one pole to ski.  

“And so after maybe a couple of times or so, I could kind of understand by watching people and getting some instruction from some coaches how it would work as a one-handed skier.” 

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordic.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.