Evan Strong, pictured, and Mike Shea established themselves as favorites for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Snowboard Team by finishing 1-2 at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard Cross Test Event in Sochi, Russia, on March 6.
Evan Strong narrowly defeated Mike Shea to win the gold medal at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard Cross Test Event in Sochi, Russia, today. Amy Purdy finished second to the Netherlands' Bibian Mentel.
With just one year and one day to go until the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, 25 athletes from 11 nations competed in warm, sunny conditions on a technical and challenging course in Rosa Khutor, the Paralympic snow sports venue.
There were events for upper and lower limb impairment groups, although only the latter will be included at the Paralympic Winter Games next year. It is the debut for para-snowboard cross, a discipline of alpine skiing.
Strong had the fastest times on the first two runs on the men’s side, allowing him to take gold.
The Hawaiian native did not go into the competition as confidently as he might have hoped, though, having battled illness over the past few days.
“After practice yesterday, I wasn't feeling super-confident, I was sliding down a lot of the turns,” Strong said. “I didn't really know how today was going to go.
“But as soon as I got out the start gate on my first run, it just felt super fluid, really good and I thought, 'I know this feeling, I know how to do this.’”
It was by no means an easy victory, as Strong finished 0.29 seconds ahead of his teammate Mike Shea (1:28.36), who had the fastest time on the third run and was consistently less than 0.2 seconds behind Strong on the other runs. New Zealand's Carl Murphy took bronze in 1:28.71.
“Mike Shea my teammate has been looking super aggressive and really fast all season, and he was definitely keeping it together better in the training,” Strong said. “Seeing that the first six guys were just half a second apart after the first two runs, I knew my work was cut out for me.”
Keith Gabel, who finished second at the 2012 World Snowboard Federation Para-Snowboard World Championships to Strong, took fourth in Sochi after trouble on the third run.
The Netherlands' Bibian Mentel, who is also coaching her Dutch teammates, won the women’s race in 1:28.10 – a time that would have got her a silver medal in the men's race.
“I made a couple of mistakes on the first run, which I tried to address on the second,” she said. “The other women are really stepping it up, so of course I'll try to do my best.
“I'm going to try for the highest goal possible at Sochi 2014, of course, and I hope to bring a couple of other Dutch athletes,” Mentel said.
The 40-year-old was previously a six-time Dutch champion in half-pipe and snowboard cross events before she lost her lower leg to cancer. The 2012 WSF Para-Snowboard World Champion is the favourite for gold at the Sochi Paralympics.
Her closest rival is Purdy, who took silver in 1:46.09.
“I felt super-solid today, really fast. I of course had a couple of spots to clean up, but I felt really good,” Purdy said.
Purdy had both legs amputated below the knee after contracting bacterial meningitis at the age of 19. The co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports, one of the top snowboarding organizations in the United States, was second at the 2012 WSF Para-Snowboard World Championships and is now training full-time in the lead-up to Sochi.
“The goal's not necessarily to beat Bibian. The goal for me is to ride the absolute best that I can and to show that double-leg amputees can compete with others in the field.”
As a double-leg amputee, Purdy, unlike her rivals, cannot feel her toes on either foot.
“It's very limiting now, but I know I can push through a lot of it. I know a lot of it is in my head as well and I just have to do things a little bit differently. I have to work a lot harder than everybody else to stay competitive,” she said.
“Being a double (amputee) is definitely more challenging, but it doesn't mean it's not possible for me to be up there and beat the rest. Taking silver – I'm super-proud of that and I just want to keep riding hard and strong and make it here for 2014.
The Netherlands' Ilse van Rhenen won bronze in 2:36.20.
In the women's upper limb impairment class, Italy's Sara Dorigatti was the only competitor and finished in 2:08.74. Her teammates Roberto Cavicchi (1:38.74) and David Preziosi (1:39.57) came first and second respectively in the men's upper limb impairment class.
The Sochi test events continue on March 8 with the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals.