Four U.S. Nordic Skiers Excited To Show Off Their “Summer Sports” In Tokyo
by Alex Abrams
Dani Aravich competes in Nordic skiing.
Kendall Gretsch didn’t grow up skiing, and she certainly never expected to win a pair of gold medals at the Paralympic Winter Games.
After all, she’s a five-time national champion in paratriathlon. She’s more accustomed to racing in water than on snow.
However, when Gretsch learned she couldn’t competein paratriathlon at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 because her classification wasn’t included in the event, she decided to give Para Nordic skiing a try.
“It was definitely a big disappointment, but I think looking back now I’m in a way kind of happy it did happen because it’s the reason why I started skiing,” Gretsch said. “That’s a whole part of my life that I just really love and enjoy.”
Gretsch, 29, will finally get an opportunity in late August to make her Paralympic triathlon debut — three years after she won her two gold medals at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
And she won’t be the only athlete who’ll head to the Tokyo Games with the hopes of returning to Asia only a few months later to compete in the 2022 Beijing Games.
Gretsch is one of three members of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team to qualify for Tokyo in their respective “summer sport,” joining Oksana Masters (Para-cycling) and Aaron Pike (Para track and field).
In addition, Dani Aravich, one of the newest members of the U.S. Paralympics Development Team, qualified for her first Paralympic Games in track and field.
“I think (we) kind of have that shared mindset of what it’s like to do the two different sports,” Gretsch said.“We want to see each other do well in our winter sport with teammates, but also it’s kind of funny. We’re all in different (events) for the Summer Games.”
The four teammates spent this past winter living and training together as part of a U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing residency program in Bozeman, Montana. They often talked to each other about how they manage to balancetheir training schedules in two different sports.
“I think it’s more mentally kind of nice to know that you have other teammates that are in a similar situation,” Gretsch said.
In March, Gretsch, Masters, Pike and Aravich left the snowbehind and started quickly training in the hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Games in their individual events.
“Now the hard part.... switching from ski fitness to cycling fitness,” Masters wrote on Instagram on March 12. “Completely opposite muscle groups & approach to training.”
Masters, 32, who joined Gretsch in winning two gold medals in PyeongChang, is poised to be one of the big breakout stars in Tokyo.
She has already earned eight medals in four previous Paralympic Games as a rower and a Para Nordic skier. This year, she was nominated for an ESPY andprofiled by HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
Large murals featuring Masters and four female Olympians were put up on walls in Philadelphia, Atlanta and New York before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games. Still, the past few months haven’t gone as smoothly as she had hoped.
In April, Masterscompeted in her first Para-cycling race since 2019 at the 2021 U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville, Alabama.Two months later, she was forced to have leg surgery — 100 days before the start of the Paralympic Games.
“Recently my road to Tokyo included an unexpected detour,” Masters wrote on Instagram on June 10. “I had to make the difficult choice to prioritize my health over sports.”
Masters has gotten support along the way from Pike, 35, her longtime partner. They’ve become a sports power couple, even competing together on TBS’ “The Cube” game show.
Pike learned in late June that he’d be joining Masters in Tokyo when he matched her by qualifying for his fifth Paralympic Games. He’s hoping to earn his first medal in August.
“I’ve made my 5th Paralympic Games and will be doing all I can to get on the podium!” Pike wrote on Instagram on June 24. “Happy for teammates who have made their first team and the ones I’ve made the Paralympics with in the past!”
Aravich commented on Pike’s post, writing, “Can’t wait to be with you for this journey!”
Aravich, at age 25, is the youngest of the four athletes heading to Tokyo. While a relative newcomer to Para Nordic skiing, she has an extensive running background and ran cross country at Butler University.
However, Aravich has had to adjust her training for the Tokyo Games since she’ll be competing as a sprinter instead of a distance runner. The Paralympic Games don’t have a running event that’s longer than 400 meters for her classification.
Since leaving Bozeman, Aravich has returned to Utah to train with her running coaches. She has also been working out at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center near San Diego, California.
Aravich wrote on Instagram on June 24 that she’s thankful to U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing “who saw potential in me and invested in me, to help me grow as an overall athlete and person (and apparently ski season gets you fit as hell in order to run around a track?)”
Meanwhile, Gretsch said she’sright now in the midst of a fairly intensive training schedule for paratriathlon. She leaves Aug. 12 for one more training camp before arriving in Tokyo on Aug. 22 for the Games.
While Gretsch spent this past winter mostly focusing on skiing, she said she brought her bike with her so she could continue to stay in shape for the paratriathlon by riding 3-4 times a week.
“The great thing about the two sports is that the endurance fitness that I have gained from both of them really does translate between the two sports,” Gretsch said. “So I think it’s a little bit different than someone coming completely fresh and not having any sort of sporting background or endurance background and then trying to start in the sport.”