Standing Para Nordic Skiers Continue To Make Strides For Team USA
by Stuart Lieberman
(L-R) Dani Aravich and Sydney Peterson pose for a photo after the Para middle-distance cross-country competition at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 12, 2022 in Beijing.
BEIJING – At the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, Sydney Peterson became the first U.S. Para Nordic standing skier to win a Paralympic medal — man or woman — since Steve Cook won two golds in 2006.
In fact, Peterson, a sophomore at St. Lawrence University who is so new to Para Nordic skiing that she had to get a late invitation just to compete in China, ended up going home with a full set of cross-country skiing medals: gold in the mixed relay, silver in the long-distance race and bronze in the sprint.
“It feels absolutely surreal, said Peterson, who was tied for the second most decorated Team USA athlete at the Beijing Games. “I never expected to be here.”
Peterson, 20, has a long history of Nordic skiing growing up in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Only in recent months has she been pursuing the Para version of the sport, however. Over time the reflex sympathetic dystrophy and dystonia in her left arm has progressed, limiting her mobility.
After attending a Para world cup late last year in Canada to get classified as a Para Nordic skier, Peterson made her world championships debut in January, where she won three medals. That performance resulted in World Para Nordic Skiing and the International Paralympic Committee extending a late invitation to Beijing, where her meteoric rise continued.
“I just tried to focus on being super happy to be here and going out and having a fun race and not worrying too much about what every other person was doing,” she said.
She ended up doing much more than that.
Peterson is emblematic of the significant strides the U.S. Nordic team is making in building up its women’s standing program, with three women having represented the delegation in 2022 — Dani Aravich, Grace Miller and Peterson — after having one women’s standing skier at each of the last two Paralympics.
Boise, Idaho, native Aravich, who also competed in Para track and field at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, and Miller, who was born in China and also competed at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, both recorded top-10 finishes at the Games.
Meanwhile, it had been 12 years since the last time Team USA had multiple athletes represented in the Nordic skiing men’s standing classification at a Paralympic Winter Games.
John Oman was the lone men’s standing skier at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, and Ruslan Reiter held down the fort at PyeongChang 2018.
Drew Shea celebrates after the Para middle-distance cross-country competition at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 12, 2022 in Beijing.
So when 24-year-old Drew Shea joined Reiter on the roster for 2022, it provided the Maine resident an extra boost of motivation and source of camaraderie.
“I’m glad to have Drew come with me to these Games — it’s so nice to ski with another standing athlete, as finally I’m not the only one,” said Reiter, of Manchester, Maine. “Yet the whole team has always been super motivating and watching them just inspires me.”
Shea, a Vienna, Virginia native, started skiing as a way to help him recover after having his left hand amputated following an accident at age 21. After graduating from the University of South Carolina the following year, he moved to Park City, Utah, to train. He skied for the first time outside of the U.S. at last year’s world cup race in Slovenia and was named to the 2021-22 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Development Team before moving again to Bozeman, Montana, to prepare for Beijing.
Having a veteran in Reiter to lean on proved valuable in Shea’s rise, he said.
“I learned early on in the sport that everyone else wants to help each other,” Shea said. “You’re not on your own. I think that was something Ruslan instilled in me. We’d be racing against each other trying to make it to the Games, but he would still be out there helping me out. I think I’ll take that and usher in the younger guys and not be afraid that they take my spot … but maybe they will.”
The zestful Shea, who eagerly tries to soak up as much information about the sport as possible at all times, has also been influenced by six-time Paralympic medalist Dan Cnossen. While Cnossen is a sit skier, his mentality as a former U.S. Navy SEAL platoon leader has pushed Shea to become driven and self-disciplined.
“Dan has been a huge mentor for me over the last couple of years,” Shea said. “I definitely look up to the older group in the U.S. Para Nordic team, and especially him with his background and all he’s done for the sport. He’s an incredible sport and I learned early picking his brain was really, really beneficial for me. He’s got so much experience out here, just getting to talk with him is a real pleasure.”
At the National Biathlon Centre in Zhangjiakou, in the mountains northwest of Beijing, Shea competed in five events, placing in the top 20 in four of them: open relay (ninth), middle-distance biathlon (13th), sprint biathlon (14th) and middle-distance cross-country (19th).
“I’m pretty pumped about it,” Shea said following his last individual race. “The goal for me was really to make the Games, so it’s really special for me to be here, let alone get to compete against the best in the world. I think I can hang my hat on the biathlon shooting. I shot really well during the beginning of the week and the skis were moving later in the week.”
Reiter, who was born in Russia with an underdeveloped right arm and was adopted from an orphanage, proved very consistent in his second Paralympics, finishing among the top 12 in all four of his individual events, while also racing as part of the ninth-place open relay.
“It was tough. I had a rough start, but everything at the end went well,” Reiter said. “To hang in there and keep telling myself keep going and that the finish line of each race will feel so good really motivated me.”
Stuart Lieberman has covered Paralympic sports for more than 10 years, including for the International Paralympic Committee at the London 2012, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.