Andy Soule took one look at the skate course at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships — with technical downhills and a massive uphill — and thought, I could do that. The 35-year-old Army veteran previewed it the day before the final race in Cable, Wis., and found it to be “fairly difficult by our standards,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Difficult in the sense that he’s a sit skier who relies entirely on his upper body and core strength, double poling everything from flats to steep hills. The course was designed for standing athletes — with two freestyle legs in the mixed relay, but the U.S. only had one man that could skate.
“We wanted to enter a relay at World Champs, but we only had one standing athlete available to us, Omar Bermejo, who had been battling sickness during these events so running him twice on a super cold day did not seem like the best idea,” U.S. Paralympics High Performance Director John Farra explained in an email. “So we floated it by Andy and he did not hesitate to say yes! … This is the first time a sitting athlete has done the standing course in the relay, so that was fun as countries came up to me to be sure we had not made a mistake.”
It wasn’t against the rules, as Soule pointed out: “There is no rule that says you have to have a sit skier or a stand skier on either one; factors are just supposed to take care of those.” So as the second leg of the U.S. mixed relay on Feb. 1, he headed out after teammate Oksana Masters tagged him in fourth of seven teams.
“Our team is very sit-ski heavy right now, and while we didn’t really go into the relay with an expectation of a high place or anything, they decided to go ahead and field me on the standup course,” Soule said from his home in Pearland, Texas. “I told my coaches I believed it was entirely doable … it’s probably not any sort of a competitive advantage for sure, but it was an interesting experience, and it went pretty well.”
Soule came through the exchange in seventh, just seven seconds behind Germany’s Tino Uhlig, a standing skier who uses one pole, in sixth. With sit-skier Tatyana McFadden and Bermejo, a single-arm amputee, racing the third and fourth legs, respectively, the Americans placed seventh, 45.4 seconds out of sixth.
From the outset, the mixed relay was the team’s weakest event of the week, one in which they did not field a team at last World Championships. However, more symbolically, it capped their historic showing in Cable, where Soule racked up five medals — unprecedented for a U.S. cross-country skier at World Championships — and competed in all seven events, including the relay.
He was glad he did it.
“It have me a really good gauge of where we are in terms of what relative speeds look like for sit skiers versus standup athletes,” Soule said. “On the largest climb of that race, I was passed by one of the best standup skiers in the world in our sport, Nils-Erik Ulset, of Norway. I think it was an interesting event for a lot of people to see exactly what is possible for a sit skier, too.”
And he held his own on the descents. “I definitely didn’t lose any time on downhills,” Soule added.
“Andy left Cable as a bit of a Legend,” Farra wrote. “5 medals and climbing & descending Telemark Hill successfully!”
In his eighth year on the U.S. Paralympics Nordic team, it was not only Soule’s most successful World Championships, it was perhaps the highlight of his career after winning bronze in biathlon at the 2010 Paralympics.
“This is a pretty high highlight,” Soule said. “After the second podium, I just started feeling like that wasn’t a fluke. This isn’t just a one-time thing, I’m really up here with the top of the field. I can compete with these guys. I can come out and compete on a level with the top guys every day. It was a confidence builder as well when you have that feeling.”
“After the second podium, I just started feeling like that wasn’t a fluke … I can come out and compete on a level with the top guys every day.” — Andy Soule, who earned three silver medals and two bronze at the 2015 IPC World Championships in Cable, Wis., unprecedented for an American
That feeling translated into three silver medals in two of three biathlon events and the cross-country 10-kilometer race at the 2015 championships, and two bronze in the cross-country 15 k and 1 k sprint (where Soule charged up from fourth with 40 meters to go to take third). On Monday, the IPC named Soule its January athlete of the month across all sports.
Prior to this season, he had a Paralympic bronze from 2010 and placed fourth twice during last winter’s 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I wanted to break through that last little barrier for sure,” Soule said of his tendency toward wooden medals. “Between being almost on the podium and being a solid, consistent at least podium-potential finisher … that’s kind of been the source of all the little tweaks and changes we’ve been working with over the past year.”
Asked specifically about those changes, U.S. High Performance coach Eileen Carey explained, “To talk about what any one individual athlete has done to improve is to talk about the whole team,” she wrote in an email.
Everyone on the team is analytical and thoughtful when it comes to what they need to work on and how to achieve those changes, she added. “They have created a really cool team environment focused on improving as individuals and as a team.”
For Soule, it was about relaxing his technique at race pace.
“He has always skied well at level 2, but speed had previously introduced a lot of wasted, inefficient movements into his technique, especially on flat terrain,” Carey wrote. “His ski speed and relaxed technique have always been there, it was just a matter if translating them to a race pace.”
In September, they started with rollerski sessions on the treadmill with live video so Soule could see the changes he was making as he tried them out.
“Once we had the cues we knew worked for him, we brought it to snow this fall,” Carey explained. “It has been an evolution and I am sure it will continue to evolve. We did a lot of video analysis during and after the first World Cup in Finland in December and spent the pre-World Champs camp honing in on some of the patterns we saw from that. He and his teammates have driven the process and we have worked to find the process and communication style that works best with each athlete.”
As a result, Soule came out of the World Cup opener in Vuokatti, Finland, with two fourth-place finishes in the cross-country 10 k and biathlon sprint. While they weren’t podiums, he could feel a difference.
“What I used to be doing was concentrated more on high tempo,” he said. “My emphasis on training recently has been to focus on flat sections of the course, what standup, able-bodied skiers would be considering a V2-technique section, lengthening out the pole stroke.”
He continued to work on his technique at U.S. nationals in early January and at the team’s pre-World Championships training camp after that. He also switched to shorter poles this season.
“I think everything just builds off what you’ve been working on in the past,” he explained. “You keep watching video of yourself, keep looking at races and identify what did work and then what little things we can maybe experiment with to get a little more speed.”
Soule approached the biggest races of the season in Cable hoping to see improvement first, then results.
“I wasn’t really worried going in what specific places I was aiming for — you can never really control that because you can never control how good everyone else is going to be,” he said. “But I wanted to see a personal improvement in what I would be able to accomplish as compared to how I’ve been performing in the past year.”
As for which medals meant the most to him, he said his bronze in the cross-country 15 k was something he’d remember.
“It meant a lot to get the medals in the cross-country races just because that long-distance race, the first cross-country race of the week, was actually my first-ever podium in a cross-country race,” he said. “And it also boosts my confidence going into a biathlon event. It used to be, in order to have a shot at the podium in biathlon, I had to outshoot the top competitors. They had to miss shots in order for me to have a shot at the podium. Now I have that confidence that I can ski right with them. If neither of us misses anything, between me and the top competitors, I’m still in it.”
Now third overall in the IPC World Cup standings with two major stops remaining (this weekend in Asahikawa, Japan and at World Cup Finals from March 16-22 in Surnadal, Norway), Soule said he mostly wanted to put together a “solid string of really great performances” for the rest of the season. Beyond that, he has his sights set on the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I’m right at that age and I’m right at the point in my career where I’m in the prime of real top-performance potential,” he said. “I feel really great about what I have going forward and that I’ll be able to build on it and still improve on it.”
In most every interview in Cable, Soule tossed around the word: “team.” He reiterated that he couldn’t have done it without his teammates and turned the focus toward their many successes at this year’s World Championships as well, including five Americans making the sit-ski sprint finals (three men and two women), and Masters tallying silver and bronze in the cross-country 5 k and cross-country sprint, respectively.
“It just feels really good to have great teammates,” Soule said. “You’re always cheering for each other and everyone wants to see everyone else succeed, so it makes practice more fun when we’re all there and it makes racing more exciting. A good team component is really important to what we have going right now.”
“Lots of good things were going in Cable beyond the medals,” Farra added.
Masters currently ranks first in the World Cup in cross-country. Stay tuned for her interview.