When you become the first American to rack up five medals in six individual events at World Championships, you’re essentially a shoo-in for Para-Nordic Skier of the Year. Andy Soule, a U.S. Army veteran and sit skier, did just that at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships in January in Cable, Wis., taking silver in two biathlon events and the 10-kilometer cross-country race plus bronze in the cross-country 15 k and sprint.
“After the second podium, I just started feeling like that wasn’t a fluke,” Soule said in February. “This isn’t just a one-time thing … 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.”
In his eighth year on the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Team, Soule, 35, was named IPC’s January athlete of the month. After World Championships, he improved to third overall in the World Cup and finished the season first overall in the cross-country standings.
“It is a great feeling and a great finish to the season,” he said at World Cup Finals in Surnadal, Norway.
In all, Soule tallied four World Cup golds — all of which came in Asahikawa, Japan — and a bronze during the 2014/2015 season.
And all the success has led him to commit to another three seasons leading up to the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. According to his teammate, Dan Cnossen, Soule considered retiring after 2013/2014.
“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,” Soule 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.”
It got even better for U.S. Paralympics as Oksana Masters, another sit skier, also rose to the top of the 2014/2015 World Cup cross-country podium in her second year on the team.
A rowing convert, Masters, 25, earned two cross-country medals at 2015 World Championships — silver in the middle distance and bronze in the sprint — and won four out of five races in Japan this year. That put her on top of the IPC overall and she ended the season in first with a total of seven individual World Cup golds and two silvers.
“I respect my competition, of the years they put in to be where they are now,” Masters said in February. “I’m playing catchup and I’m just doing what I can and focusing on myself. It just so happens to be putting me much higher than I ever could imagine being.”
She explained that it took her 13 years to reach the Paralympic podium in rowing (she earned bronze in the double scull in 2012) and was humble about the strides she had made in skiing since starting the sport a year and a half ago.
A silver and bronze medalist at the 2014 Winter Paralympics, Masters committed to skiing full time last spring, partially to alleviate a past rowing injury in her back. A training crash leading up to 2015 U.S. nationals re-aggravated the injury, forcing her to sit out the week.
A week before World Championships, she got back on snow while fighting bronchitis and walking pneumonia.
“World Championships was just more of a mental battle than … just a battle for getting medals, with one setback after another,” Masters said. “I didn’t really have much expectations for myself … so [I was] just basically trying to survive at that point.”
The bronze medal she earned in Cable, her first of World Championships, brought her some serious relief.
“[It] also just brought my focus more towards, OK, I had setbacks, but I still can be within the competition and hang with the field, so just believe in the previous training that I’ve done and what I do know and just do it,” she said.
Masters made the nomination list for IPC athlete of the month in February.
The Canadian Para Nordic Ski Team had a banner season as well, with standing skier Brittany Hudak topping the overall World Cup cross-country podium in her first year on the development team.
“The learning curve has been so huge for me,” Hudak, 21, said in a team press release after winning two consecutive races in Asahikawa.
At the following World Cup Finals, she collected three medals: silver in the 15 k cross-country, silver in the 12.5 k biathlon and bronze in the 6 k biathlon.
“Having the opportunity to attend national training camps … I have noticed a huge improvement in my technique,” she added. “It has been such an advantage for me to be in the same environment with the high-performance athletes, seeing how the train and learning from them.”
Hudak wrapped up 2015 with two World Cup golds, two silvers and a bronze in cross-country, and a silver and a bronze in biathlon.
It’s a close call between several Canadian Para-Nordic teammates for the men’s pick for honorable mention, but Klebl tops the list as he placed third overall on the cross-country World Cup and is currently first in the IPC rankings. Standing biathlete Mark Arendz was was fourth overall in biathlon, and longtime team veteran Brian McKeever — a visually impaired distance specialist — won most of the races he jumped into for third overall in cross-country.
In Asahikawa, both Klebl and Arendz notched back-to-back bronze medals before Klebl placed second in both the 10 and 15 k cross-country races. Klebl, a 2014 Paralympic gold medalist in the 10 k, went on to win the 15 k at World Cup Finals.
McKeever won the 20 k that same day in Surnadal (he won the same event at 2015 World Championships; it was the lone race he competed in there) and took first in the 10 k classic in Japan as well.
Arendz picked up two bronze medals at World Cup Finals in the biathlon sprint and following pursuit.
Klebl edged American Dan Cnossen by 40 points for third overall on the World Cup, making Cnossen — who won his first World Cup in Japan and achieved multiple podiums later in the season — worthy of mention as well.
Other 2015 Skiers of the Year (SOTY): Junior | Collegiate | Nordic Combined | Biathlon
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