With PhD In Hand, Nicole Zaino Uses A Scientific Approach As She Climbs The Ranks In Sit Skiing
by Alex Abrams
Nicole Zaino has a PhD in mechanical engineering, so naturally she takes a more scientific approach when it comes to cross-country skiing.
She considers the ways that biomechanics help propel her across the snow in her sit ski. She thinks about body positioning and how she needs to move her center of mass and pay attention to “the moment arm” when she’s making a turn on the course.
“I don’t think most people talk about skiing in those ways, but that’s just how I think,” said Zaino, who now has a part-time job in her field of assistive technology and biomechanics. “And so that definitely helps, I think, bring a different perspective to how I approach skiing and my progression.”
Zaino, 27, said she fell in love with sit skiing after trying it for the first time in February of 2022. Instead of easing her way into the sport, she admitted she “jumped headfirst” into it and has spent the past year looking for opportunities to race and get faster.
Even though she was new to cross-country skiing, Zaino competed in January at the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Sit Ski Nationals in Soldier Hollow, Utah. She placed 11th in the 5-kilometer race, crossing the finish line in 28 minutes, 37.6 seconds.
Many of the sit skiers who finished ahead of her in the race are well-known Paralympians and Paralympic hopefuls, including two-time gold medalist Dan Cnossen, two-sport star Aaron Pike and Josh Sweeney, a sled hockey gold medalist in 2014 who became a Paralympian in Nordic skiing in 2022.
Zaino competed in more races last season and attended a Para Nordic skiing training camp in the Methow Valley in northern Washington. She then took an even bigger step after graduating in June with her PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Zaino decided to move to Bozeman, Montana, where U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing is based, to train with other sit skiers.
She recently shared a photograph on Instagram of her training alongside promising sit skier Ty Wiberg with the message, “Training with teammates is always better.”
“Being able to train with other skiers is really important,” Zaino said in an interview. “Every time I went to a camp, I would learn more just by watching a sit skier do something and then talking to them afterward like, ‘Oh, what were you thinking about in the moment?’ Or like, ‘What were you trying to do with your body, especially with maneuvering?’
“And just seeing how different people approach lines and turns and all of that stuff … that’s always helpful. And you don’t necessarily get that from just working with a coach.”
Zaino is preparing to compete in a number of domestic races this upcoming Para Nordic skiing season in the hopes of qualifying for a world cup event. Fellow sit skier Erin Martin has mentored her along the way.
Martin, who made her Paralympic debut in Beijing last year, lives in Seattle. They met at the nationals in January and eventually started racing and training together.
“And then the summer before I left Seattle, almost weekly we’d get together if our training schedules lined up just to mountainboard and train together,” Zaino said. “She’s been an amazing mentor and sharer of knowledge in the last year.”
When Zaino was age 8, she suffered a stroke that resulted in her being paralyzed on the left side of her body. She continued to stay active, playing the piano and clarinet and taking up dancing like her sisters.
“I tried stand-up cross-country skiing once in high school and failed miserably,” Zaino said. “I did downhill skiing with my family growing up, but cross-country skiing just didn’t work — at least standing without modifications or anything like that — until I found sit skiing.”
Zaino said she was looking for an adaptive sports program to join after moving to Seattle for graduate school. She was introduced to sled hockey and started playing in 2019, spending four years as a member of the Seattle Kraken sled hockey team.
While she enjoyed sled hockey, Zaino said she wasn’t fond of all the hitting involved in the sport. She started to think more about trying Para Nordic skiing again.
Several recent Paralympians have made the transition from sled hockey to Nordic skiing, such as Sweeney and Lera Doederlein.
Speaking in scientific terms, Zaino said there are aspects of sled hockey that cross over to sit skiing, such as the propelling motion used in both sports.
“I think initially that was what pulled me toward (Nordic skiing), kind of like, ‘Oh, I know I can do this motion. I do this all the time for sled hockey,’” Zaino said. “And so that’s what got me to try it in the first place.”
Now, she’s Dr. Zaino.
Once she retires from Nordic skiing, Zaino said she’d like to use her analytical skills to do research for a hospital or for a company involved with mobility aids, such as wheelchairs.
“I think the analytical mind that I’ve gained from all my years of research and education has really helped with skiing,” she said.
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 USParaNordicSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.