February 25

Mainer teaches Paralympians to meet challenge, dream big

James Upham, a longtime competitor and coach who grew up in Wilton, has helped to expand the U.S. biathlon program.

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Coach James Upham, who grew up in Wilton, will soon take his U.S. Nordic team to compete for nine days in the Winter Paralympics in Russia.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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. In Sochi, nine days of competition are scheduled in events such as biathlon, Alpine skiing, cross country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.

LEADING GROWTH OF THE PROGRAM

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 facility 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 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 James Upham has been at its forefront.

He joined the U.S. Paralympic program in 2008, after eight years with the 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.

“ ‘Teach them how to shoot,’ he told me,” said James 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.

(Continued on page 2)

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