James Upham is making a difference in the sport he loves, but doing it as coach of the U.S. Nordic Paralympic team, which will soon compete in the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, wasn’t his original plan.
Upham’s father, Tom Upham, represented the United States in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Nordic combined skiing, and coached the U.S. women’s cross country ski team in the 1976 Winter Games. So James Upham knew early in his life what it would take to be an elite athlete. And he wanted to get there with his abilities and help from his parents, both of whom were coaches.
He developed into a pretty good skier, winning a junior national biathlon championship and competing on two junior world championship teams. But he knew his limitations.
“I think I decided pretty early in my career that if I wanted to achieve my ultimate goals, it wouldn’t be as a competitor,” said Upham, who grew up in Wilton, competed for Mount Blue High School in soccer and skiing and now lives in Portland. “So I switched to coaching.”
Twelve days after the closing of the Winter Olympics, the Paralympics will start in Sochi on March 7. Upham left Sunday for a training camp in Italy with the Nordic Paralympics staff, its 16 athletes and two guides. Nine days of competition are scheduled in such events as biathlon, Alpine skiing, cross country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
The U.S. is not expected to challenge host Russia for many medals at the Paralympics. But considering that the Nordic program has grown from only six athletes in Vancouver in 2010 to 16 this year, it has made great strides.
The Maine Winter Sports Center, the biathlon training center based in Caribou, will be well represented.
Upham was once the center’s Olympic development head coach. Four other members of the U.S. Paralympic Nordic staff worked at the Maine Winter Sports Center. And Omar Bermejo, a Marine veteran who lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident and now trains at the center, will compete in cross country and biathlon.
“It’s been an amazing progress for us in the growth of the program,” said John Farra, the U.S. Paralympic high performance director and a former vice president of the Maine Winter Sports Center.
And Upham has been at its forefront.
He joined the U.S. Paralympic program in 2008, after eight years with the Maine Winter Sports Center. Max Cobb, president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon, called Upham into his office and told him he needed him to develop the Paralympic biathlon program.
” â€˜Teach them how to shoot,’ he told me,” said Upham, who celebrated his 42nd birthday Thursday. “He told me to do whatever I needed to do to adapt to their injuries, to their lifestyles.”
And he has. He also has discovered one central truth about Paralympians: they are athletes, just like able-bodied Olympians. They want to be instructed, they want to be pushed.
“It’s been very rewarding,” said Upham. “Really, it’s just like what you would teach an Olympian — how to compete at the highest level, trying to get them to improve every day. That’s what these guys deserve.”
Tom Upham isn’t surprised at what his son has done.
“James is a very good teacher,” said Tom Upham, who’s now retired and living in Wilton with his wife, Judy, who coaches tennis at Mount Blue. “He’s quite analytical. He reads a lot. James was a very good teacher for the biathlon kids before he moved on to the Paralympics.
“He’s embraced what he’s doing now,” he said. “He’s getting a lot out of them and giving them the opportunity to do things that they might not have thought of doing.”
Eileen Carey, the U.S. Paralympic program director — and another former vice president of the Maine Winter Sports Center — said Upham has the ideal temperament for the position.
“He has made the sport accessible,” said Carey, who grew up in Leeds and skied at Leavitt High in Turner. “There are a lot of new athletes in our program, and this is an incredibly difficult sport. It requires a lot of training, strength and mental fortitude.”
“He does a great job for us,” said Farra, who also worked at the Maine Winter Sports Center. “He brings that calm, cool Maine attitude and confidence that he developed over the years.”
And he has shown a great ability to adjust his coaching style to parathletes.
“We adapt all the time,” said Farra. “We use the things we pick up coaching able-bodied athletes and adapt to the athletes that are in front of us.”
“When we’re out there, it’s like we’re working with any athlete,” said Upham. “If they do well, we get excited. If they don’t, we get upset.”
Both agree that the biggest reason the Paralympic Nordic program has grown over the last four years is that they have made the sport more accessible. “We’ve been breaking down barriers to compete,” said Farra.
They have found guides for the blind competitors, equipment for disabled athletes. And they have made sure the equipment fits the athlete. Each sit ski must be made specifically for each athlete, depending on his or her disability. They make sure that anyone who wants to compete in the national tournaments has a place to stay, and transportation. “We’ve gone from having five people at the nationals, to 30,” said Farra. “But if we’re going to be a really successful program, we need 100 people at the nationals, fighting to get to the podium.”
A place for vets
The program has also grown because of recruiting at military rehabilitation hospitals. Disabled veterans have been particularly eager to learn a new sport.
“They’re motivated to perform well in the sport,” said Upham. “They know how to line up a shot and how to squeeze the trigger. That makes it easy, at least the first day. Then it’s all about learning about the biathlon.”
Army veteran Andy Soule earned the first biathlon medal for the U.S. in the Olympics or Paralympics when he finished third in Vancouver in 2010.
“He’s a guy who wanted to learn the sport, and now he’s become one of the better shooters in the world,” said Upham.
He expects the U.S. team to make a good showing in Sochi. The Russians, who will have 30 competitors, are heavy favorites.
The U.S. has some competitors who can compete for medals, several who have finished fourth, fifth or sixth on the World Cup tour.
“We need to do everything in our power to turn that fourth into a third,” said Farra. “We would love to steal a couple (of medals) from the Russians on their home course.”
Upham just wants to see the program continue to progress.
“We definitely have people who, on a good day, can (medal),” he said. “But I get my satisfaction out of getting people to improve, getting them better every day.”