Slidin' in Sochi

Slidin' in Sochi

Aaron Pike’s training and racing for marathons usually consist of pushing along roads, often surrounded by Illinois cornfields.

This winter, he’s traded that for sliding on the snow.

Pike is one of three University of Illinois athletes who are trading in their wheels for skis to compete in the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, which begin March 7.

Pike, Tatyana McFadden and Travis Dodson — all members of the UI’s wheelchair track and field team and road racers — will compete in cross-country skiing and biathlon in Sochi.

Pike likes both how skiing tests him and provides him access to places he wouldn’t otherwise be able to go.

Blog Photo“What I like most about skiing is how hard and challenging it is, as well as being able to go to places in the ski I can’t in a chair,” he said. “There are trails that run all through the mountains, and when you’re in the ski, there are no barriers.”

Pike competed in the 2012 London Paralympics in the 1,500 meters, the 5,000, the 4x400 relay and the marathon. He’s raced numerous marathons, including five Boston Marathons.

Pike also joined UI teammate Ryan Chalmers for portions of Chalmers’ Push Across America last year, in which Chalmers pushed his wheelchair from Los Angeles to New York City.

This is Pike’s second season of skiing. Shortly after he competed at the London Paralympics, at a time when he had planned to take a short break from racing, he was invited to a Nordic ski camp.

“Since I don’t like taking breaks, I made Nordic my break,” Pike said. “Everything was new, fresh and exciting. I was putting in a lot of work, but without really knowing it, because it was so fun.”

Pike said the biggest challenge in learning to cross-country ski has been “learning how to control the sled without losing speed around the corners, which has resulted in me crashing again and again!”

Nordic skiing is just as intense as any road racing he’s done.

“It rivals any endurance sport that I have been a part of,” he said. “I know that having a strong base from wheelchair racing gave me a huge advantage out of the gates when I first started skiing. The endurance was there. All I needed to do was develop specific muscles for the sport.

“Technique is the biggest challenge now. I’m trying to become more and more efficient in skiing. That is what now separates me from the top athletes in the sport.”

In addition to the fitness and conditioning he’s gained through wheelchair racing, the sport has also taught Pike strategies he can use in cross-country skiing as well.

“Through racing, I’ve learned pacing,” he said. “I’ve learned to crest hard on hills and then become aerodynamic on the downs. I’ve learned to take the best line through turns and to find the fastest conditions.”

In Sochi, Pike will race all the cross-country distances, from sprint to long distance. That includes 1-, 10- and 15-kilometer races.

He’s also competing in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and target shooting. While Pike had never cross-country skied before, his father taught him to shoot while he was growing up in Minnesota. He’ll do the biathlon sprint distance of 7.5 kilometers and possibly the 10K race as well.

Pike has trained in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, California and Canada, in addition to his training on campus here. In Champaign and California, he trained on the road on a mountain board, which he described as an off-road skateboard that his sit ski is mounted on. Pike also trained on the mountain board on hilly terrain during the Push Across America.

He watched the action during the Winter Olympics at Sochi to get a look at the course he’ll soon be skiing. In addition to the competition, Pike said he hopes to try some of the local food in Sochi, see some of the area and watch other events.

Photo: Aaron Pike competed at the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Championship at Soldier Hollow in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah earlier this year. Photo provided by Aaron Pike.

The three Illini who will compete in the Sochi Paralympics:
Travis DodsonBlog Photo
Dodson served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, where he was injured by a grenade. He competes in track and races marathons and half marathons. He’ll be competing in cross-country skiing and biathlon in Russia.

Tatyana McFaddenBlog Photo
McFadden has been in three Summer Paralympics as a track athlete, winning 10 medals (three gold). In 2013, she was the top finisher at the London, Boston, Chicago and New York marathons. At Sochi, she’ll compete in cross-country skiing.

Aaron PikeBlog Photo
Pike races marathons and has competed in Boston five times. He finished second in the Twin Cities Marathon last year. He’ll be competing in cross-country skiing and biathlon in Sochi.


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