Snapshot time has arrived for the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing National Team.
The opening of the North American Cup this week at Copper Mountain, Colo., will provide an important first step toward the rest of the season, which will include the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Alpine Skiing World Championships in Spain in February and the World Cup Finals in March at the site of the Sochi 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
But there will be something else happening in Copper Mountain. Something quite memorable for the 26-member national team. A keepsake.
“We’ll actually be able to take a team picture,” said Kevin Jardine, High Performance Director and head coach, U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing.
Since the skiers will begin to head in different directions following five days of racing in Copper Mountain, some of them to the World Cup circuit and others to more North American and Nations Cup events, Jardine is happy to have his team together for training and competition in Colorado. It is, as he said, a rarity.
The team trained Saturday in Vail before heading over to Copper Mountain.
“This Copper race this week, with the exception of a couple people that are nursing injuries that may or may not compete, it’s the first time since I took back over (in 2011) as the director of the program that the entire team will be in Copper,” Jardine said. “I think that shows you how important this season is for everybody and that everybody feels that they’re ready to race.”
The team enters the 2012-13 season having already achieved a number of successes on the mountains the last two years. Alana Nichols earned 10 of the team’s 39 World Cup medals last year. Laurie Stephens and Danelle Umstead each had nine. The team includes 12 who competed in the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, where the United States won 11 alpine medals.
Nichols, Stephens and five-time Paralympic medalist Stephani Victor are “in my opinion the three best women out there,” Jardine said. “Competing with each other and hopefully sweeping a podium would be amazing to see.”
“I’m just trying to work on being the best I can. Hopefully the results will come with that,” said Stephens, a two-time Paralympian who swept three World Cup titles in 2005 and won gold in super G in Vancouver.
As good as the national team has been, Jardine envisions bigger things for 2013. And that’s where the team concept comes in.
“We’ve had a lot of time with the team,” Jardine said. “We’ve had a lot of great training camps all over the world. We’ve been to Chile and Austria. We had a camp in Colorado in November.
“I feel that the team is more prepared for this season than we have been in a very long time. The guys and girls are skiing at a really, really high rate right now. We’re ready for competition. A lot of years at this time of the year, we’re not where we are now. It’s pretty exciting.”
Jardine credits the program’s other coaches for much of that work. The staff includes: Jonathan Mika, Sean Ramsden and Brad Alire, World Cup coaches; Ray Watkins, NorAm and development coach; Kevin Pillfant, athletic trainer and start coach; Tim Rodmaker, conditioning coach; Mark Kelly, head service technician; Jessica Smith, team manager.
“I’ve managed to gather the best coaches I know,” Jardine said. “They have done an incredible job all summer long preparing their guys.”
The races in Copper Mountain, which begin Monday with competition in super G and continue through Friday in slalom and giant slalom, may provide the rewards for the preseason work. But the real payoff will come Feb. 20-27 at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain.
“I’m definitely trying to get our athletes to peak at world championships,” Jardine said. “It (the NorAm Cup in Cooper Mountain) is a very international field that’s going to be there. Having six races in five days has been an attraction for some of the foreign teams. It’s going to look very similar to a World Cup field, which will be great for us.”
Winter Park, Colo., and Park City, Utah, will hold NorAm and Nations Cup competitions in 2013, but the United States will not play host to any World Cup races. For the World Cup skiers, it may be their only time on a home mountain this season.
“It’s always nice having a home-team advantage, so to speak,” said Heath Calhoun, who was the flag bearer for the U.S. Paralympic Team at the Opening Ceremony in Vancouver.
Back with the women’s team, following her chase to three cycling medals in London, is Allison Jones.
“She came to our camp in November refreshed, excited and actually skiing better than I’ve seen her ski in years,” said Jardine, who has coached Jones since she was 8. “I think the break from the team was good for her.”
The men’s team includes 2010 Paralympians Mark Bathum (and guide Slater Storey), Calhoun, Ralph Green, Joe Tompkins, Tyler Walker and Chris Devlin-Young.
“Chris Devlin-Young is skiing really strong right now,” Jardine said. “He is skiing really strong right now, so I’d like to see him have some success this week to really kick off his season and start off on a better foot than he did last year.”
Following the races in Copper Mountain, much of the national team is off until the World Cup schedule begins in early January in Italy. From that point, it’ll be a rush toward the IPC World Championships beginning Feb. 18, followed by the World Cup Finals at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort in Russia on March 7-12. The ski area is located about 30 miles from Sochi, where the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will be held.
“I’m looking forward to getting to go see what the hill is going to be like,” Stephens said of Sochi. “Kind of giving an idea of what kind of hill the Paralympics is going to be on. It’ll be good to go there and check it all out.”
“That‘s a big deal,” Calhoun said, “to get out and get a chance to run the mountain (in Sochi). I’m looking forward to that. … See what it’s like.”