Perhaps it’s the trace of Norwegian blood that courses through his veins. Or maybe, Aaron Pike speculated, it’s because he was born in Minnesota.
Whatever the reason, the native of Park Rapids found he had a natural gift — and fondness — for cross-country skiing and biathlon. A little more than a year after trying those sports for the first time, Pike made the U.S. team that competed in last year’s Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Last week, he returned to his home state to prepare for his next big adventure: his debut at the International Paralympic Committee’s Nordic Skiing World Championships.
Pike, 28, will compete in all six events for which he is eligible — three in cross-country and three in biathlon — at the championships in Cable, Wis. He is part of a nine-member American delegation taking part in the event, which includes 135 athletes from 15 countries. The championships begin Saturday and run through Feb. 1.
Pike played several sports before he suffered a spinal-cord injury in a hunting accident at age 13. After being introduced to adapted athletics, he became a standout in track and basketball. Skiing and shooting have provided new outlets for his intensely competitive nature, expanding his career as an elite athlete into a year-round pursuit.
“When I showed up to my first camp, I didn’t have a single piece of equipment,’’ said Pike, who lives in Champaign, Ill., and trains at the University of Illinois. “I knew nothing about Nordic skiing. But I liked it immediately. It worked really well with track, and I loved the challenge of trying to master something new.’’
Pike’s parents, Chris and Tiffany Pike, have returned to Park Rapids after moving around the country and the world for several years during Chris’s Air Force career. The family was living in Virginia in 1999 when Chris and Aaron went hunting on a heavily wooded peninsula.
A member of another hunting party fired his shotgun in the direction of a noise he had heard. One of the pellets struck Aaron in the back, causing an incomplete spinal-cord injury that left him with very limited mobility in his legs.
While still in the hospital, Pike was introduced to adapted sports by Carlos Moleda, a former Navy SEAL with a similar injury who had won multiple Ironman Triathlons. Pike soon began competing in basketball and track and enrolled at Illinois, known for its elite programs in both those sports. Though he won two national championships with the Illini’s wheelchair basketball team, he chose to continue his post-collegiate athletic career on the track rather than in the gym.
Pike has competed in several marathons — including Boston, Chicago and New York — and was runner-up at the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon. He also races in distance events on the track and competed at the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London. But an out-of-the-blue email he received in the fall of 2012, shortly after returning from London, changed his plans to take a break from the sporting life.
“One of the Nordic coaches invited me to a camp to try skiing and shooting,’’ Pike said. “I had been going all out with track for the past four years, so it sounded like a good way to stay active and try something else. And I just loved it. It was a new challenge.’’
Pike trains 12 months a year and travels the world to compete. His winter and summer sports seasons occasionally overlap. Last September, he skied in Sweden for a week, then returned to the U.S. to do the Chicago and New York City marathons in October and November before the season’s first ski camp in Canada.
Even during ski season, Pike travels with his racing chair to continue training for track. Already, he is preparing for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the blessing of his coaches, Pike will skip some upcoming World Cup ski events to train for the Boston and London marathons and this summer’s world championships in track and field.
First, he is hoping to earn world championship medals in his newest sports.
“There is a lot to learn, especially in biathlon,’’ Pike said. “But I’m a very competitive person. I want to master it.’’