The second day of the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Oksana Masters — a bronze-medal rower from Louisville, Ky. — broke the ice and a 20-year barrier for the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Program.
Twenty-four at the time with just over a year of skiing experience, she captured silver in the 12-kilometer sit-ski cross-country race, becoming the first U.S. woman to win a medal for her team in the last 20 years.
Three days later, another sit skier and Winter Paralympics rookie, Tatyana McFadden racked up another silver for the U.S. in the 1 k sprint. Then on the final day of the Games, Masters closed the books with a bronze in the 5 k.
Three medals left U.S. Paralympics High-Performance Director John Farra a lot to be excited about, especially after the team took home one medal from the Paralympics four years earlier in Vancouver, British Columbia. He wasn’t at the helm then, when Andy Soule won bronze and six athletes represented the U.S. at the 2010 Paralympics.
But less than three years after he started with the program in the summer of 2011, Farra helped it more than double in size. The U.S. brought 16 nordic-and-biathlon skiers to Sochi and grew from five full-time athletes in 2011 to six national-team members (including Masters as its first A-teamer) and nine development-team athletes.
Out of the 16 in Russia, two of them won three medals, yes, but Farra also likes to point out all of their fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes as well.
“[Those are] maybe a better sign of the health of our program,” he said on the phone from his office in Park City, Utah, last week. “I was prepared for the possibility that we might win [no medals]. I wasn’t worried, but I will say there was some sense of relief, but more importantly, it was just fun.”
Take Soule, for instance, who finished in the top five of all but one of his six races in Sochi. A biathlete as well as a cross-country sit-skier, the team veteran shot perfectly at the Games — hitting all his targets in three races.
Then there was Jake Adicoff, an 18-year-old visually impaired skier, who placed sixth in the 20 k distance race in his first Paralympics.
Those kinds of performances, paired with a few medals (which Farra says they “stole”), better define the strength of their program, he said. And when his bosses in the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) Paralympics division decided on his team’s budget for this 2014/2015 season, Farra believed they took that into consideration.
“Our numbers went up in terms of participants and our performance,” he said, adding that they also increased the size of their full-time staff. “I think we’re in a really good place. … I didn’t get what I requested in terms of my high-performance request, but we’re getting enough to do the job, for sure. We’re getting really supported by the USOC, and we’re earning the support that we get because we’re running a really high-level program.”
U.S. Paralympics oversees five winter sports: nordic, alpine, snowboarding, sled hockey and wheelchair curling. Every four years, Farra explained that it’s essential for U.S. Paralympics’ summer sports (like cycling, swimming, and track and field) to cut back and support them in the months leading up to the Winter Games. They do so with the understanding that now, two years before the Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the winter sports will do the same.
“We’re spending less this year and appropriately so based on that design,” Farra said. “I think that’s fine.”
He pointed out that more than half of the available medals at the Winter Paralympics come from cross-country or biathlon events.
“[U.S. Paralympics] needs nordic to be successful,” he said. “Is it pressure? You bet it’s pressure because it doesn’t happen without us, but that’s the whole idea.”
Last year, his program was allowed to overspend to a certain degree, Farra explained, and the budget he has to work with this season — while down from last season — is still higher than it was three years ago.
“There were some elite strategies that I identified to my boss that I felt were really important going into Sochi and my boss allowed me to do what I needed to do,” he said.
That included their Fast Skis program in collaboration with U.S. Biathlon.
“I honestly feel that we had the fastest skis in Sochi of any team in the Paralympics because of that partnership, because we shared information,” Farra said. “We bought into that process and for two years we tested it. That’s the piece that we have and we’re going to keep that going, but now, what else can we do?”
“[U.S. Paralympics] needs nordic to be successful. Is it pressure? You bet it’s pressure because it doesn’t happen without us, but that’s the whole idea.” — John Farra, U.S. Paralympics Nordic high-performance director and coach
Standing in the hallway of the Olympic Training Center during a camp two weeks ago in Lake Placid, N.Y., Farra pointed to a five-year-old, steel-frame sit ski. That need to be three pounds lighter by switching to carbon fiber, and so did the frames of every sit skier on his team, he said. To dial in that equipment perfectly before the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, they’ll likely have to test several versions years before. So they need to start now.
“Medals are good, but they’re not critical; I think they’re going to be more critical in Pyeongchang,” Farra said of building on his team’s established success.
He told his bosses this was going to be a process. “[I said], ‘I don’t want to get fired if we don’t win medals in Sochi,” he reflected with a laugh. “They said, no, no, we understand.”
Rethinking staff structure
While in Russia, Farra spent some time like he did when he started the job three years ago, asking questions and gathering ideas. He got talking to USA Bobsled and Skeleton and was inspired by the federation’s creativity when it came to reviewing staff. Each year, they surveyed their athletes and employees to get an honest sense of how everyone felt about the team, its structure and staffing, etc., and looked at the results collectively to make changes.
He jotted the idea down at the breakfast table one morning in Sochi and vowed to try it in the spring. Then he wondered, did his team need a clearly defined director, head coach, assistants and/or development coaches? Or were there other ways to go about assigning responsibilities?
When he met with the USOC at the end of the season, he asked how other teams under its umbrella structured their respective teams from a staffing perspective.
“I was really shocked at how many sports did it in a unique way, and it validated my instincts that there’s not just one design,” Farra said.
In the spring, he went back to USA Bobsled’s idea and created a staff review using SurveyMonkey, a free-online polling tool. He encouraged his athletes and coworkers to participate, not withholding any criticism nor fearing repercussions for sharing their thoughts. He’d be the only one reading the results, and he invited criticism of himself as well.
“It really drew out some interesting responses where we found some flashes of our brilliance, but we have some flaws in our design,” Farra said.
The good news was the results were in line with what he had already been thinking.
Before this spring, Farra was the U.S. Paralympics Nordic’s lone full-timer. Three development coaches, Eileen Carey, BethAnn Chamberlain and Rob Rosser, worked with the team as U.S. Biathlon employees. Head coach James Upham worked as an independent contractor.
Farra said he sat down with that core crew this spring and shared the overall takeaways from the survey. Mostly he asked if they were willing to be part of a collaborative and different-looking staff structure: with a director/coach, who splits his time between administrative and instructive duties, plus several multifaceted coaches, who work with developing as well as elite athletes.
“While we need to win medals, we’re more of a development organization,” he said. “We’re still not there in terms of having all kinds of high-performance athletes that we need to care for. … Everybody needs to be a development coach, including a director.”
He challenged his own job, asking whether the team’s dollars were being wisely spent on a director who mostly sits at a desk. That wasn’t smart, he reasoned, so he needed to get more involved with day-to-day coaching, building sit skis and helping athletes learn to navigate corners. He would do so with Carey, also a high-performance coach, and Chamberlain and Rosser, all of which are now full-time team employees. But they no longer needed a head coach.
Upham had been a head coach for a long time, Farra pointed out, and if he had wanted to stay, the program would have had to consider if they could afford his pay scale. Salaries and budgets aside, Farra explained that it was more about a coaching style he had to sell his staff, and those that were interested stuck around. Upham left to become an assistant coach at Bates College.
“It was not a relaxing spring, but I think in the end the people that signed up for being a part of this collaborative coaching style are 100-percent onboard,” Farra said. “… Collaboratively we’re all responsible for our overall success. I’m psyched for James that he found something that’s going to work for him and I think he’d say the same for us.
“There was really no drama,” he added. “… I definitely can’t afford to hire lots of full-time coaches, but it wasn’t about money, it was more about being able to take the blinders off and sort of say, OK, can we do this in a different way?”
Throughout the last several months, Chamberlain, now in her second season with the team, and Rosser have been primarily working with developing athletes — both biathletes and cross-country skiers. While Farra and Carey are mostly responsible for the high-performance athletes (a.k.a. national-team members), the four coaches trade off when it comes to training camps based on their geographic proximity to those venues.
“It makes no sense to fly BethAnn and Rob to Utah to work with a couple newbies,” Farra said, considering he lives there.
At the same time, he needed to skip the October national-team camp in Oberhof, Germany, to take care of paperwork and meetings. Carey and Rosser will fly overseas with the team, while Chamberlain works on military and non-military recruiting stateside. The team includes several part-time contractors, including physiologist Jason Kask — brought on to help lead the training-plan process for the next Olympic cycle.
“We have regular meetings and go over the hundreds of responsibilities that exist with developing a high-performance and a development program,” Farra explained. “You get one chance every four years to build something that’s going to be successful.”
IPC World Champs in Cable
This winter, the world-famous host of the American Birkebeiner and back-to-back International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cups: Cable, Wis., will host the IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships from Jan. 22-Feb. 1.
That’s an exciting prospect for U.S. as the home team, with Farra largely crediting its success in the last three years to being able to bring numerous developing athletes to the Cable World Cups in 2012 and 2013.
At the last World Championships in 2013, the U.S. had four athletes and three coaches in Solleftea, Sweden.
“It was just so cost prohibitive,” Farra explained. “Every time you bring more athletes you need to bring a lot more staff. We expect [Cable] to be a decent size team, similar to what we saw in Sochi and hopefully some new faces so it’s a really good opportunity.”
The qualifying standards are still more selective than a World Cup, which will keep the team size around 16 or so, plus a couple guides, he predicted. It’s also cheaper than traveling overseas, but “not an inexpensive proposition,” he explained, when you consider the cost of food and lodging, plus participation fees.
But would having more athletes compete boost their chances?
“I’m not worried about medals,” Farra said. “I feel the support from the USOC and U.S. Paralympics. I don’t feel that we need to cash in a bunch of medals in Cable to get support for Pyeongchang. That would be icing on the cake but … we’re not worried about that, we’re worried about doing a great job.”
Check out our video and learn more about what the national team did during its recent camp in Lake Placid.