Rising Back to the Top for the US Paralympics Alpine Ski Team

March 30, 2012, 6:14 p.m. (ET)

Mark Bathum envisioned making the U.S. national ski team as a teenage phenom on the junior circuit. That was in the mid-1970s.

Although an eye disease initially derailed those plans, Bathum finally has made his dream a reality. The 53-year-old is now in his first year on the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team, and he has been a key element in Team USA’s return to prominence this season.

“This is the fulfillment of almost a 40-year-old dream,” Bathum said.

Bathum, now one of the world’s top visually impaired ski racers, captured a pair of bronze medals to help the United States take first place at the recent International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Alpine World Cup Finals in March in Panorama, British Columbia.

Alana Nichols, a two-sport athlete who also competes on the U.S. Paralympics Wheelchair Women’s Basketball Team, took three golds and one silver at the competition, which helped Team USA wrap up its first Nations Cup title since 2010 — a year after finishing sixth.

“We were focusing on podiums this year, and trying to get as many first, second or third-place finishes as we could,” U.S. coach Kevin Jardine said.

“Everybody played a part,” added Tyler Walker, a team member since 2003. “It was kind of like icing on the cake for the whole season.”

Overall, the United States produced eight globe winners this World Cup season, including Nichols (women’s sitting), first in speed, third in giant slalom and third in slalom; Laurie Stephens (women’s sitting), first in giant slalom and second in speed; Walker (men’s sitting) second in speed; and Danelle Umstead (women’s visually impaired), third in both speed and slalom.

Several others, including Bathum, Lindsay Ball and Heath Calhoun, who was one of two military veterans on the team, also finished in the top three in individual races.

To make it to the podium, the United States first had to make some changes in the boardroom.

After laboring through last season with just four active members, the team’s fortunes changed for the better last December, according to Jardine, when the U.S. Olympic Committee took control of it from the U.S. Ski Team. With more resources at its disposal, the team was able to accept a larger number of athletes, including some who specialized in only one or two events and others who required more flexibility in their training schedules.

The team swelled to 20 members. Many of the new skiers, like Bathum, had been good enough to make the U.S. team earlier, but unable to accept nominations because of full-time jobs or family responsibilities.

Jardine, a coach in the sport for 18 years, officially took the reigns last June, and soon began instituting new ideas aimed at bolstering the team’s ranks.

“We worked with them to create calendars and schedules that allowed them to compete at the level they wanted to,” Jardine said. “It just went … to coming up with an individual plan for each athlete.”

That was welcome news for Bathum, who along with guide Slater Storey had captured a silver medal in the downhill at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, but was forced to decline his invitation to the national team.

“I can’t unfortunately walk away from a job being visually impaired and in my 50s to pursue ski racing full time, then expect to resume a career after attending the Paralympics,” said Bathum, who serves as director of business development for the Cobalt Group. “The reality is I need to preserve my job and pursue ski racing, which is a huge passion for me.”

“I just sat down with (Bathum) and he said, ‘Ok, how much time do you have off, what can you do, and how are you going to prepare yourself if you’re not with us?’ ” Jardine said.

Another change has been more frequent adjustments to the team’s roster, with athletes now able to earn or lose their spots based on monthly World Cup rankings. In the past, a stellar season meant that a skier would have to wait until next year to secure their spot.

That opened the door for athletes such as Ball, who along with guide Diane Barras qualified for the national team in March. A week later, she earned a bronze in the giant slalom at the World Cup event in Winter Park, Colo.

The changes have proven wildly popular with the athletes. The U.S. team now features a full compliment of racers in the sport’s categories of visually impaired, sitting and standing — all eyeing the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

That was never more evident than at the World Cup event in Winter Park. Despite entering the week ranked fifth in the world standings, Team USA quickly vaulted to first place with a dominant performance that included 20 team medals.

Nichols, in her fourth year with the U.S. squad, said the results only served to reinforce the positive impact of the off-season changes. She said having a larger team has created more of a sense of camaraderie — something she knew well from her background in basketball.

“For me it’s important to feel like we have a number of us working toward the same goal,” Nichols said. “It does create more of a sense of pride. Everybody brings something different to the table. I think we’re in a great spot headed into the next Winter Games. We’re all really committed to staying in the top spot headed to Sochi.”