For James Upham, becoming an assistant coach at Bates College this fall will be a big change.
“I have only recently realized this, but I have always run my own show,” the until-recently Head Coach for U.S. Para-Nordic told FasterSkier. “Either as a head coach or a lone wolf running a lean, emerging program with minimal assistance. It will be an adjustment for me.”
But on the other hand, it’s also coming home. Upham grew up in Wilton, Maine, and attended Mount Blue High School. En route to becoming a junior national champion in biathlon, his own training was firmly grounded in The Pine Tree State.
“I’m really happy to be living in Maine!” he exclaimed.
And so, after restructuring and the post-Sochi financial dip hit the Paralympic team hard (the Head Coach position was eliminated: “It came as a complete surprise and I was left emotionally devastated”) Upham found himself looking for a job and was thrilled to find one at Bates.
“I have always wanted to experience the Eastern Carnival scene and this was a great opportunity that came up,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Becky Woods, the head coach, has been a friend since Bill Koch League racing days and I have some family connections to the College that make it feel comforting and supportive right away. The immediate challenge for me is that we can’t start working with the athletes until October, which is driving me nuts! I want to get going!”
Bates is a Division III school, but sent one woman (Hallie Grossman, now a senior) and one man (Jordan Buetow, now graduated) to NCAA Championships last season. Their skiers have also often found success and junior and senior national championships, and the storied program also produced Olympians in Nancy Ingersoll Fiddler, Justin Freeman, and Haley Johnson.
Upham said that he has already talked with Woods enough to tell that they agree on training philosophy, which will make the pair a strong team.
“She has handed off some duties for me to manage, but for the most part, I think we will coach as a team and help support each other,” he wrote. “40 years of combined coaching experience should produce some success if harnessed properly. I am also a student of the game, so I am going to pick her brain every chance I get just like I do with all my other coaching friends.”
Upham has a rich history of Nordic experience to draw on as he heads back into the college scene. He attended Northern Michigan University in the early 1990’s, then went on to coach the development program for the U.S. Biathlon Association in the 2000’s.
Known as an excellent teacher of skate technique, in his time at U.S. Biathlon he was also the architect of a program that taught college skiing standouts to shoot – which has produced two Olympians so far, including Susan Dunklee, who now owns the best Olympic results by a female American biathlete, ever.
Upham has always felt that college skiing sets athletes up for potential international success, and that’s an attitude that he will definitely be bringing to Bates.
“I would like to help all the Eastern skiers get better,” he wrote. “Can some of them one day be internationally competitive? YES. That has been proven. I will do my best to help.”
His most recent job with the Para-nordic squad also resulted in great success: Oksana Masters won silver in the 12 k sit-ski and bronze in the 5 k, and Tatyana McFadden won silver in the sprint.
Coaching the Paralympic team was a huge learning opportunity, Upham explained.
“What I learned from the Paralympic side is that racing on an Olympic level course with limited use of your legs or arms or torso or vision is REALLY hard!” he wrote. “Training works. Finding the right dosage is the key. I learned a lot about how much athletes can handle.”
The litany of challenges faced by his athletes was extensive – and in many cases goes well beyond what an able-bodied skier can imagine.
“Imagine getting 40 medical bills- In one day,” he listed, as an example. “Imagine racing a World Cup a week after finishing radiation treatments… Imagine after multiple surgeries your bladder is now the size of a teacup… Imagine nearly every piece of your essential equipment needing to be customized and tinkered with constantly… Imagine being 20k out on a sitski training day and your pole breaks. How do you get back?”
College skiers certainly have an easier road, but Upham believes that a lot of what he learned from his last group of athletes is extremely applicable.
“Every day with the Paralympic team was a lesson in overcoming obstacles,” he wrote. “[It’s] all the same obstacles nordic athletes face everywhere: motivation, fatigue, finances, snow conditions, equipment, team dynamics, travel, time management, jetlag, etc., just exaggerated.”
As he settles down in Maine – Upham just got engaged to his fiancée, Jill, and the two spent the summer painting a new house – the new college assistant is looking forward to bringing that same problem-solving attitude to a new role.
“I have learned that life is going to throw you some obstacles,” he said. “Get busy. You can get through them.”
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.