In A Decade Of Near Nonstop Competition, Aaron Pike Is Determined To Stay Sharp
by Alex Abrams
Oksana Masters of Team USA talks to Aaron Pike of Team USA following the Middle Distance Sitting finals at the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics in Zhangjiakou, China.
Aaron Pike showed up for the Boston Marathon on April 18 with zero expectations.
He just wanted to do whatever was necessary to get through the race. He even told several other athletes in the men’s wheelchair division, “Don’t even worry about me out there.”
Only a month earlier, Pike had competed in five biathlon and cross-country skiing events at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. It was his second Paralympics in six months after qualifying for Tokyo last summer in track and field.
After such a grueling stretch of traveling, training and competing without any breaks, Pike had reached a point where he just felt “kind of done.”
“I almost didn’t go to Boston because I was like, ‘I’m not really ready for this.’ Like trying to figure out what was my reason for going, and (I) just wasn’t coming up with anything great,” said Pike, who turned 36 on May 4.
“And then I finally was like, ‘All right, why not? Do this one because you’ve already signed up and then you can kind of take a break after that as far as competition.’”
Pike ended up surprising himself by earning his best finish ever in the Boston Marathon, placing second in the men’s wheelchair division with a time of 1 hour, 32 minutes and 49 seconds.
The native of Park Rapids, Minnesota, has reached a place in his career where he’s able to manage his expectations and focus on one goal at a time. He has avoided burning out despite competing as a two-sport athlete in every Summer and Winter Paralympics since 2012.
His longtime girlfriend, 17-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters, has provided encouragement along the way. As a two-sport athlete and six-time Paralympian like Pike, she understands the mental toll he goes through to continue competing at the highest level.
Pike said he can now tell when he’s starting to feel some burnout while training in Nordic skiing during the winter or track and field in the summer. When he does, he gets the urge to do something else.
“I don’t fight that urge at all. If I’m like, ‘I feel like riding the bike or something,’ I don’t force myself to get into the racing chair. I’ll just go ride the bike,” Pike said. “I’m staying fit, and I know that’ll keep me mentally fit because I’m doing something I want to do.
“I’m never going to make myself do something just for the pure thing of like sticking to a perfectly finite schedule because I’m not doing that year-round anyway.”
Pike wasn’t always in such a peaceful place, though.
Early in his career, he’d often compete at the first world cup of the Nordic skiing season and get frustrated if his performance wasn’t where he expected it should be.
Pike said he realized years later that it’s absurd for him to think he should finish in the top five while racing against athletes who’ve been training all summer in the sport when he had been working at it for only one month.
“It’s sort of keeping yourself in check,” Pike said.
To help manage himself, Pike has cut back on the number of road races he’s competing in this spring. He’s instead focusing on training and enjoying being home in Champaign, Illinois, where he and Masters live.
Aaron Pike and Oksana Masters pose for a portrait during the Team USA PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics photoshoot in West Hollywood California in April 2017.
Despite training year-round, Pike and Masters will take a break from everything and get away for two weeks during the summer. They’ll often visit his parents in northern Minnesota, where they can hang out on a lake and just relax.
Pike will go paddleboarding or kayaking, but it’s at his own pace. It’s nothing grueling like when he and Masters are training in Nordic skiing or in one of their other sports.
“I would say those are big breaks for us because we’re not following any sort of plan and don’t care how fast we’re going or anything like that,” Pike said. “But we’re still staying physically active.”
Pike and Masters celebrated their eight-year anniversary in March.
They’ve been each other’s support system, offering encouragement when one of them has moments of doubt while competing. They also train alongside each other in Nordic skiing.
“It’s definitely really helpful to have someone that you love that’s right there,” Pike said. “We train together a lot, too, in the winter especially. Just someone that can truly understand what you’re going through, not just have a vague understanding of like, ‘Yeah, that must be hard doing that.’ They’re doing the same thing.”
Pike said, as crazy as it sounds, being a two-sport athlete has helped him avoid burning out as a six-time Paralympian. He’s able to change gears midway through the year, and once he transitions from one sport to the other, he puts the other sport aside entirely.
“I’m able to compartmentalize. Like once I switch to winter, that’s kind of it. That’s where I’m at now, and it’s all fresh,” Pike said. “Everything is new. I’m on snow, but the stroke is different, the technique is different, what I’m working on is a little different and I’m just in a whole different place.
“And then when I come back to Champaign (for track and field), I’m back in that home environment. I’m surrounded by that team, and it’s the same thing. The winter is, all of a sudden, out of sight, out of mind. So it’s keeping it fresh for me. I think I’m kind of like a two-sport athlete where I think I’d go through more lulls if I was just doing one sport.”