Nordic Ski Team Boasts Highest Percentage Of Collegians On U.S. Paralympic Team
by Alex Abrams
Sydney Peterson smiles after the women's standing cross-country long distance race during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 7, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Sydney Peterson has a lot on her plate.
The 20-year-old sophomore who’s majoring in neuroscience at St. Lawrence University in New York, recently begun traveling the globe with U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing.
And it doesn't stop there. She is also a member of St. Lawrence’s Nordic skiing team, taking a semester break to train and ultimately qualify for her first Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing.
“Normally I would just be in the middle of our ski season. So last year at this time we were going to carnival races every weekend,” Peterson said. “I guess that’s what I’m planning on next year. I’ll be back there skiing with the team.”
She’ll head back to St. Lawrence with a silver medal around her neck, having taken second place in the 15-kilometer classic standing race in her Paralympic debut. Peterson is among a group of current and former collegiate athletes who are competing in Nordic skiing for Team USA at the Beijing Games.
Nearly half of the Paralympic Nordic team — seven of 15 athletes — played a sport in college. They competed for seven different schools that span all three of the NCAA’s divisions.
Grace Miller competes in the women's standing cross-country long distance race during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 7, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Along with Peterson, Grace Miller (University of Alaska Fairbanks), newly-minted Paralympic silver medalist Jake Adicoff (Bowdoin College) and his guide Sam Wood (Middlebury College) competed in Nordic skiing in college.
Miller said being a part of the Alaska skiing team provided her with a consistent group of athletes to train with throughout the year. She’d train twice a day, including early every morning, forcing her to push herself even harder.
Peterson said she was in the 10th grade when she started taking skiing more seriously and training year-round in it. She began to think she could ski in college.
Peterson considered different schools, and St. Lawrence seemed to fit what she was looking for academically and with skiing. She contacted Ethan Townsend, the St. Lawrence men’s and women’s Nordic skiing coach, about racing for the Saints.
“From there things just kind of worked out,” Peterson said.
Even though Peterson has a neurological disorder that affects the left side of her body, she has always skied against able-bodied athletes, including in college.
“This is my first season skiing solely with one arm, and so while I’ve had an impairment in my arm since I was 13, I’ve just blended in with everyone else,” Peterson said. “There wasn’t really a difference.”
Dani Aravich poses for a photo during training ahead of the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 1, 2022 in the Zhangjiakou, China.
Aaron Pike and Dani Aravich, meanwhile, competed in track and field in college. Both have developed into dual-sport athletes who raced at the Tokyo Paralympics in August and then qualified for Beijing as Para Nordic skiers.
Each of them has a background in competing in endurance sports.
Pike, who has made six consecutive Paralympics, competed in wheelchair track and field alongside 20-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Aravich ran cross country at Butler University. She didn’t know she was eligible to compete in the Paralympics until after she graduated from college.
“I didn’t know anyone growing up who really looked like me, and I didn’t know anything about adaptive sports,” Aravich said. “I always participated in able-bodied sports.”
Aravich was born missing most of her left arm below the elbow. Once she knew she was eligible for the Paralympics, she set the lofty goal of qualifying for both Tokyo and Beijing in less than a year.
She accomplished her dream, running the 400-meter dash in Tokyo and competing now in Beijing.
Dan Cnossen is a former Navy SEAL who won six medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics, including a gold in the biathlon. Before that, he was a member of the Naval Academy’s triathlon team despite initially not feeling comfortable in water.
Cnossen went to the pool nearly every day during his four years at Navy to prepare for the swimming portion of the physical test required for Navy SEAL training. A few friends who were on Navy’s varsity swim team even helped him with his swimming technique.
“I was always into sports as a kid, team sports, and I thought going into the military is kind of like a team sport, except the consequences can be certainly much more serious,” Cnossen said. “I went to the Naval Academy in a time of peace. I didn’t know there was going to be a war just a few years later.”
Cnossen got good enough in swimming to take part in triathlons. He started Nordic skiing after losing both of his legs in a 2009 explosion in Afghanistan.
In total, 17 members of the U.S. Paralympic Team in Beijing competed in a collegiate sport. At 46.7 percent, Para Nordic skiing has the highest percentage of current and former student-athletes, followed by sled hockey at 41.2 percent.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Paralympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.