The U.S. Paralympics alpine skiing team is adjusting to a time zone change this week, as the 10 athletes get settled in Europe for the first in a string of four IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup events on Friday in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
That’s quite fitting for the Team USA contingent, as this world cup season will be all about adjustments for a lot of the racers, with still two years to go until their next Paralympic Winter Games.
Take Stephanie Jallen, for example. The 19-year-old prodigy, with one leg and one fully developed arm, is wrestling with how to up her competitive edge even further after her breakout double bronze-medal performance at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
Despite winning giant slalom bronze at the world championships last season, she’s still stuck on her Sochi success, especially that moment she dropped her crutch and hopped onto the podium to claim her first Paralympic medal — a bronze in the super-G — in front of an overwhelmingly supportive crowd.
“I felt like I lived on cloud nine for months, but after everything calmed down, I felt lost and unable to motivate myself,” Jallen said. “Sochi was all I lived for, and all I thought about, so when it was over I didn't know what to work for anymore. I started college and continued to ski, but I still feel like I’m just floating along.”
Jallen hopes to solidify her roadmap to the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games starting this week. She plans to compete in five events on the world cup circuit this season, looking to clock times close to par with France’s four-time Paralympic and 11-time world champion Marie Bochet.
Jallen is one of several U.S. female skiers with strong medal aspirations on the world cup circuit, joined by six-time Paralympic medalist Laurie Stephens in the sitting class, along with three-time Paralympic medalist Danelle Umstead and Paralympian Staci Mannella in the visually impaired class.
Umstead, guided by her husband, Rob, is the defending world cup champion in her class and broke her world championship medal drought in 2015 by winning two silvers and a bronze. Mannella, the youngest member of the Sochi 2014 U.S. alpine skiing team, is returning to the slopes after taking last season off.
On the men’s side, sit-skier Andrew Kurka will be making one of the biggest adjustments as he alters his racing style to put health above victory. Kurka has broken a bone each of his first six seasons on the national team and has yet to complete a full season on the slopes.
“I still don’t know exactly what it takes to win without crashing, but that’s what this year’s about for me, figuring it out,” Kurka said.
The Alaska native, who now trains in Aspen, Colorado, has endured hardships at some of his biggest events. He broke his back during a training run prior to the 2011 Winter X Games and then again during his very first training run in Sochi ahead of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
In 2015, just three months after breaking his femur, he was able to win his first world championship medal with bronze in the super-G.
He’ll now work to balance his body’s limits with his skills on the slopes, something he hasn’t done in the past.
“I’m not really necessarily trying to win races this year, but rather I’m trying to stay very consistent, and I don’t want to break bones,” Kurka said. “In years past, I’ve been gung-ho, really going for it. I usually end up either finishing really fast and winning or end up crashing. This year, I really want to find that consistency in my skiing and be able to finish a lot more races, do well in them and not break any more bones.”
In addition to Japan’s epic sit-skiing duo of Taiki Morii and Takeshi Suzuki, Kurka’s main competition will be fellow American Tyler Walker, who has been on the national team for more than a decade and was Kurka’s mentor at his very first race camp six years ago.
While Kurka’s now known for success in the speed events, Walker has always had a strong hold on the technical events, making for healthy competition between the two and another teammate, five-time Paralympian Chris Devlin-Young.
In the men’s visually impaired class, Mark Bathum and guide Cade Yamamoto are expected to make world cup headlines, having won two silver medals at the Sochi Games and one silver at last year’s world championships.
Rising star Jamie Stanton out of the University of Denver will lead the U.S. in the men’s standing class.
The four upcoming IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup events will take place in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia (Jan. 15-16), Tarvisio, Italy (Jan. 18-19), St. Moritz, Switzerland (Jan. 21-23) and Tignes, France (Jan. 25-29).
Racers will then return to the United States for the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Final, which is slated for Feb. 28 through March 4 in Aspen.
Team USA wants to raise the bar higher this year after finishing 10th in the medal count at the 2015 world championships with seven medals, all colored silver or bronze.
“In the years to come we’re even going to be more of a force to be reckoned with,” Kurka said. “We’ve been consistently good. Team USA has put down almost one podium every world cup. But I think this year especially we’re going to do very well.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.