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From Soldier To Double-Amputee To Pro Athlete

KETCHUM, Idaho - A winter's worth of racing and training for the best disabled skiers and shooters culminates later this month at the Paralympic Nordic World Championships in Sweden. For the first time, the U.S. team headed to the competition is made up entirely of disabled veterans. It's a good example of how some wounded soldiers are finding a new mission and purpose.

Sun Valley, Idaho has become a hub for healing veterans through sports and one ex-soldier went from infantryman to badly wounded warrior to pro athlete.

Two winters ago, double-amputee Andy Soule accomplished something no prior American athlete at the Winter Olympics or Paralympics had before. He won a medal in biathlon -- the combination of cross country skiing and target shooting.

Earlier this month, Soule was back in the Northwest to train for the 2013 Paralympic Nordic World Championships and next year's Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The career arc that bought him here is quite a tale. As Soule tells it, it starts at Texas A&M University.

"I was getting real burned out on school," he recalls. "I wasn't doing well in school. I wasn't finding a whole lot of purpose in college and stuff. 9/11 happened that fall. That spring, I decided to leave school and enlist in the Army."

In 2005, Soule deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. What happens next has become an all-too-familiar story. The Humvee in which he's riding on patrol gets blown up by a hidden roadside bomb. Both of Soule's legs had to be amputated above the knees.

In the year that followed, Soule experienced how military hospitals and the Veterans Administration increasingly emphasize sports as part of the therapy for wounded vets. One day he met a visiting ski coach from Sun Valley.

"He said that he thought that I had the ability to be a good skier," Soule says. "He thought I should come along to his development camp up here."

So without having ever been skis, Soule says, "I just figured I would give it a try. It actually has worked out real well."

The influential coach agrees. His name is Marc Mast. He directs an adaptive sports non-profit called the Wood River Ability Program.

"Sport has done more for Andy after traumatic injury -- losing both his legs above the knee -- and not knowing what he was going to do with his life after that," Mast says. "Sport made him a whole person again, more than anyone I have ever seen."

A lot of that transition happened in Idaho. Soule moved to Sun Valley from his native Texas to live and train in the three years leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Soule propels himself up and down race courses using only arm power and his core. He straps himself into a molded seat that rides on a metal frame over two skinny skis. Turning the so-called "sit ski" involves leaning and skidding.

"On the sit down side of our sport, it is a sport that can be picked up fairly quickly, Soule explains. "Certainly there is a lot of technique to it, but the basics can be picked up quickly by someone who has the determination and has the physical ability to do it."

Soule is training and racing full time nowadays. That effectively makes him a pro athlete. But don't misunderstand the term to imply a big salary and endorsement contracts. He doesn't get either. Soule makes ends meet with an Army disability pension and a Veterans Administration elite athlete stipend.

The expert marksman is now 33 years old. He took time off after the last Paralympics to learn a trade -- a logical one if you think about it.

"I completed my Associate of Applied Science degree in gunsmithing from Murray State College in Tishomingo, Oklahoma."

But for now it's all eyes on Sochi, Russia where the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics take place in a year.

On the Web:

Andy Soule profile- Team USA
2013 IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships - Paralympic Movement
VA Adaptive Sports - Department of Veterans Affairs

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.