Ty Wiberg competes at Sit Ski Nationals at Crosscut Mountain. (Photo: Crosscut Mountain)
A few years ago, U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Development Coach BethAnn Chamberlain began figuring out a way to create more racing opportunities for American skiers.
Opportunities for Para athletes in biathlon and cross-country are growing, but a cohesive series path for competitors — ranging from promising beginners to seasoned Paralympians — didn’t exist yet.
The need to have an “at home” series became even more acute with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting overseas travel and canceling competitions for health and safety.
It was time for the National Para Nordic Development Race Series, which sprang to life during the 2021-22 season.
The main four-event series included schedule staples such as the U.S. Biathlon Nationals and other races for bonus points. Competitors of all levels and abilities could accumulate points by entering races and recording top-three finishes. Bonus points were available for competing in additional races.
The series, like the Nordic season, is now over, leaving Chamberlain with a happy lilt in her voice as she recounts how things went.
“We’ve received a lot of really strong feedback from our athletes; they loved having a series here in the U.S. It was a positive experience,” she said. “Right now, we’re looking at the whole picture of this: we need more racing opportunities, domestically, for our developing athletes. We are in a surge of growth across the board, and providing more opportunities for our Para Nordic athletes is such an important element.
“We want everybody, at all levels, to have a positive competitive experience, not just if they’re able to go to nationals or world cups. Not everybody can do that or is ready for that. We can reach everybody by having a series like this.”
Beijing Paralympian Dani Avarich won the series, followed by U.S. development team member Ty Wiberg and Beijing Paralympian Erin Martin. Jordan Valentine was awarded Rookie of the Year honors. Avarich won new skis, Wiberg gets a set of new poles, and Martin and Valentine received Team USA Para Nordic swag prize packs.
Wiberg was excited to be picking up his new poles this week, saying he was pleasantly surprised to win anything from the series. He was just happy to participate in the races.
“I really loved seeing how we are building the sport and the community around it in this country,” Wiberg, a native of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, said. “I love Para Nordic, and I love connecting with people who are into it too. It was nice to have a great race experience with a little less pressure. Like, it wasn’t you were going to world cups for weeks in Europe, knowing you were probably going to go hard and get your butt kicked.
“Here, we still were totally competing, but it was a little lighter. You could talk to people, make connections, have more of a deeper experience with other people. I loved that a lot.”
Which is exactly the vibe Chamberlain wanted. The series was about providing a high-level race experience, mixed with community and fun, while hopefully only being a short plane or car ride away for most Americans.
Not everything went to plan, though. Some events had to be canceled or changed due to poor snow conditions. Some competitors were interested but couldn’t participate due to the Beijing Paralympics cycle or issues with COVID.
Despite the unexpected challenges, Chamberlain knows the series will be growing for the 2022-23 season. There are many areas for expansion: getting more able-bodied races to add Para events, linking existing Para events into a better network, and maybe finding new ones springing up. She also wants to cover the U.S. better, with more events in the East, Midwest and Mountain West.
Finding ways to support elite Para Nordic athletes’ needs for more races, while finding a positive space for prospective or passionate competitors, are concepts Chamberlain wants to develop more within the series. The Para Nordic team is working on the series schedule over the coming months and hope to release it by early October.
“Launching something that is a first of its kind for us was exciting, so we now have a better idea of what we want to see next time,” Chamberlain said. “It really reinforced, for me, that this is more than a sport, it is a lifestyle … for so many at all levels. When you can make it fun, have new ways to experience Para Nordic, it is so exciting for all of us in the sport. I can only see this going up from here.”