Following the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup in Rogla, Slovakia, the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team is in La Molina, Spain, for the IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships, which begin today. The competition, which is the last world meet before the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, concludes Feb. 27.
With January being such a busy month for alpine skiing competitions, there have been copious amounts of preparation going into the world championships. The team has been travelling all over the world, competing in the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cups, NorAm Cups and the Europa Cup, and fine tuning their skills along the way.
“Coming into Spain, we've selected a really strong team," said Alana Nichols (Farmington, N.M.), a women's sit skier who won four medals at the previous world championships. "Team USA won overall last year and think we can do that again with the athletes competing. The men’s ski team has used the Europe trips as a solid warm up, and I think they are going to bring a surprise no one saw coming to Spain.”
“Andrew Kurka is crazy good,” said Nichols. “You never know what he’ll do next. And our other new skier, Stephen Lawler is young, and he is hungry.”
Kurka is a native of Palmer, Alaska, while Lawler is from Burlington, Vt., showing the geographic reach of Team USA. They'll be joined by Heath Calhoun (Clarksville, Tenn.), Ralph Green (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Jon Lujan (Littleton, Colo.).
Nichols also praised Tyler Walker (Franconia, N.H.), who is No. 1 in super-combined, and Chris Devlin-Young (Campton, N.H.), ret., Coast Guard into the spotlight for their successful ski seasons. Young, a defending world champion, has new equipment he has been training on, which he hopes will give him an advantage.
Mark Bathum (Seattle, Wash.), guided by Jessica Smith (Colorado Springs, Colo.), rounds out the men's squad for Team USA. He is the only visually impaired man competing for the red, white and blue.
While the men are eyeing the podium, Nichols is also poised for podium performances.
Nichols, a 2011 gold medalist in downhill and super G, aims for three golds this time around: downhill, super g and giant slalom. Having won two gold and two bronze medals at the last world championships, Nichols has made a priority of improving her performance in slalom.
Nichols has had some adjustments in her training since the summer, spending the beginning of the season patiently playing "catch-up". She says she is at a great place in her regime for worlds as well as the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals in Sochi next month.
But what she does in Spain and Russia is what matters more than the lead-up training.
“Every race is new and every time you have to prove yourself,” said Nichols. “I think any race we compete in will be just as good as any for practice and training for Sochi. We all just have to concentrate and push our hardest."
She expects as much of herself as she does from her teammates.
“Allison Jones has made a great transition from competing in London to now,” Nichols said. “She’s improved her overall skiing and she’s really going to do well.”
Nichols also said the standing events have a lot of talent coming from France, who has Marie Bochet currently ranked No. 1 in women's slalom standing, and Germany, who has Anna Schaffelhuber as a top ranked sit skier.
“It’s all up for grabs at this point. Competition is pretty stiff. I think the French have strong components in most categories, so they will definitely be ones to look out for.”
Austrian Claudia Loesch is also a threat in sit skiing.
“Claudia has taught me a lot about tightening up my form and has made me ski more aggressively,” Nichols said.
The United States' Laurie Stephens (Wenham, Mass.) collected three medals, silver in women’s sitting super G and downhill and a bronze in women’s sitting super combined at last year's world championships. She hopes to appear on the podium in La Molina as does Stephani Victor (Park City, Utah), a medalist in sit skiing in Vancouver.
Danelle Umstead (Park City, Utah), along with her guide and husband Rob, has consistently improved since winning two bronze medals at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. The Umstead's aggressive skiing landed them two gold medals in a recent NorAm competition.
Like the United States, France and Germany also have top ranked men.
“The men’s skiing has a lot of athletic talent too," Nichols said. "France’s Vincent Gauthier-Manuel is No. 4 right now for men’s standing. Thomas Nolte from Germany is No. 1 and will be someone to concentrate on for men’s sit ski.”
Despite the competition, Nichols has faith in Team USA, which ended the 2011 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in Sestriere, Italy with three golds, two silvers and three bronze medals. Team USA also won the overall team title at the 2011 IPC World Cup Finals with 4,657 points.
“Team USA is generally stronger in speed skiing, so I think downhill and super G are the events to get excited about and really look forward to gaining podiums," Nichols said.
The first medals will be handed out Feb. 20 in the downhill.
For more information on the 2013 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain, visit www.paralympic.org/Events/LaMolina2013/.