At the 2014 Winter Paralympics from March 7 to 16 in Sochi, Russia, nordic skiing and biathlon will account for more that half of the available medals.
How will the United States fare in the medal chase?
Downplaying expectations in an interview with FasterSkier, John Farra, the high-performance director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic, didn’t rule out a surprise or two from his team.
“While we are not expected to win any medals … we are spending a lot of time and effort to find that extra half percent or 1 percent that gets [our athletes] into the top three to steal a medal from the Russians or the Ukrainians.”
The Russians, in particular, have been dominant in World Cup sit-ski competitions this season. In December in Canmore, Alberta, both the Russian and U.S. teams showed up in full force to prepare for Sochi.
The Russians won most of the medals available and swept several podiums, while the U.S. men missed out on the podium.
“They [the Russians] really came to ready to race,” Farra said.
Sights on Biathlon
For the men’s team, biathlon looks to be a place where the U.S. program has an opportunity for success. At the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, Army veteran Andy Soule earned the United States’ first-ever Olympic or Paralympic medal in biathlon, finishing third.
Soule returns to this year’s team and told FasterSkier, “I’m probably better on the longer races, the biathlon long course (15 Kilometer) is my best race, not because of the skiing, but because the shooting penalty is considerably larger for that event.”
Regarding the technical aspect of biathlon, Soule said, “I’m definitely working on a being more aggressive. I’ve been a decent shooter for some time and I’m working on cutting down on my range times.”
U.S. Paralympics Biathlon coach Rob Rosser said the team has a good chance to score an upset in biathlon.
“In cross-country skiing, it can takes years to develop and significantly change your level of fitness,” Rosser said. “That’s why biathlon is so interesting as a sport, so many things can happen with the shooting that the outcomes are much less predictable.”
A leading member of the team after just a few seasons in the sport, Lt. Dan Cnossen edged Soule at U.S. nationals in January, beating Soule by 2.8 seconds in the 7.5 k race, after Soule missed a shot on his final round in the range.
Cnossen will be competing at his first Paralympics this month.
“He trains unbelievably professionally,” Farra said. “He really puts everything into it.”
This year Cnossen has focused on upping his game in biathlon.
“I’ve made some changes in my training for the biathlon,” Cnossen said at the beginning of the season. “I had some troubles with my rifle that we’ve ironed out, so I think you’ll see some improved hit rates.”
At nationals, the sit-ski sprint lived up to it’s reputation where anything can happen. A relative newcomer, Jeremy Wagner became a national champion with his first national title, topping 2010 Paralympian Sean Halsted.
U.S. Women’s Prospects
The U.S. women’s team makes up four of the 18 athletes on the team, but they have delivered the most impressive results and generated the most media buzz this Olympic year.
Oksana Masters is the top U.S. contender for a medal based on her World Cup results this season.
Masters won bronze medals in the 12 k in Oberstdorf, Germany, as well as the 5 k in Canmore. She narrowly missed the podium in the sprints at Canmore due to an “unlucky tangle” with another skier.
Recruited to skiing based on her background as a bronze-medal winning Paralympic rower, Masters has shown remarkable adeptness at learning a sport she first tried two years ago.
“She’s fearless, so she ended up crashing a lot early on because she just wanted to go fast,” Farra explained. “She didn’t know how to control the [sit-ski] to be able to turn it left or right to avoid the tree, and often times she’d connect with the tree or crash and break a pole.”
“She was a bit of a … well, you know, it was pretty funny actually in some ways. As long as she wasn’t getting hurt it was fun to watch.”
In an email to FasterSkier, Masters cited her inexperience with skiing and her surprise at her success. About her Canmore medal, she said, “I knew that just about every other woman skier out there had years of experience on me and I am still a newbie. I went into the the race with the mind set of I’m not going to be top 5 but I wanted to try my darn hardest to make it in the top 10.”
As for her first World Cup podium: “I didn’t know instantly that I got third. I was shocked and thought it was a mistake at first.”
So is she getting more comfortable and does she believe she can compete with the best in the world? Farra thought so.
“I think it is fair to say she is starting to believe it, yes. She is so competitive and really was pumped to get on the podium in Oberstdorf. She has really refined her technique to a very smooth, powerful and efficient motion. … She will get there.”
Masters has garnered national media attention since her appearance in the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Her life story as a Ukrainian orphan adopted by her U.S. mother has been featured in various media forms, including Sports Illustrated and Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine.
She was named one of the “11 hottest paralympic athletes” by MSN “Now.” She was named one of ten U.S. athletes to watch by The Guardian.
Apple featured her in a video, “Making a difference: one app at a time”, where she demonstrated how she uses an iOS app to control her prosthetic legs and put on high heeled shoes.
Perhaps most famously, Masters posed nude for ESPN’s 2012 “Bodies We Want” issue.
As the U.S. heads for Sochi, world-class wheelchair racing champion and summer Paralympic cross-over athlete, Tatyana McFadden is another woman to watch. McFadden and Kikkan Randall were featured together in BP television ads during NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympic Games.
Apart from her celebrity status as the most decorated U.S. athlete going to Sochi, McFadden is candid about her newness to skiing.
“For track, since I’ve been to other races and other Paralympics … I know what to expect between events and the transitions and about getting on the bus and off the bus and into the venue and what its going to feel like,” McFadden said. “For Sochi, I don’t know any of that. I have no idea because everything is so new for me.”
McFadden’s ski results have steadily improved as she gains experience. She has cracked the top 10 three times in IPC world cup competition this season, finishing ninth in the 12 k and tenth in the sprint at Oberstdorf. She placed seventh in the sprint at Canmore, narrowly missing the six-woman final round.
McFadden and her London 2012 Paralympic teammate Jessica Long are both Russian orphans who were adopted and brought to the United States by American families. Both have been outspoken against Russia president Vladimir Putin’s 2012 law banning adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens.
McFadden said she was excited to return to Russia for the Sochi Paralympics.
“It’s part of my culture, it’s part of who I am, and that will never be apart from me,” she said. “But I’m going to be going and competing for the United States of America.”
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FasterSkier’s Para-Nordic contributor, Mark Vosburgh lives in Missoula, Mont., where he works as a Wildfire Scientist for the US Forest Service. In addition to being a chemical engineer, Mark is a cross-country and backcountry skier, bluegrass musician, and biker. He’s also a freelance writer for numerous publications including for 48 Degrees North and MakeitMissoula.com.