February 24

Wilton native Upham making difference as coach of Nordic Paralympic team

Former Mt. Blue High School athlete will oversee the 16 U.S. team members at the Paralympics in Sochi, beginning March 7

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

Maine native James Upham is the nordic coach for the U.S. Paralympic team that will be competing in Sochi next month. He is seen in front of his home in Portland. Friday, February 21, 2014. (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. Nine days of competition are scheduled in such events as biathlon, Alpine skiing, cross country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.

Maine well-represented

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.

“ ‘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.’’

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