Laurie Stephens competes at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 14, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
When it comes to Para winter sports accomplishments, few can match the career of alpine skier Laurie Stephens.
Now 36 years old, Stephens has been to four Paralympic Winter Games and won two gold medals, amid seven medals overall, along with competing at six world championships, collecting 13 medals there including the two silvers and one bronze she won in 2019.
Recently, she nabbed her fourth overall world cup crystal globe, but instead of the prize capping a season the way she would have liked, it’s instead more a footnote at the end of a strange, and short, season.
“I always felt, and still do, that if I can ski the way I want to be skiing then that kind of stuff will kind of fall into place,” she said. “So yeah, I skied some races this season the way I want to and expect myself to ski, but I don’t necessarily think there were enough of those races to really expect to win a globe. Because we didn’t have a season.”
Or at least not the season anyone expected.
Things started off well enough for Stephens, who was born with spina bifida and competes in the sitting class. She won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the first two world cups, including two gold medals in super-G at the opener in Veysonnaz, Switzerland, in January. Her first gold medal was the first win for a member of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team in over a year, according to U.S. Paralympics alpine and snowboarding team director Kevin Jardine.
Stephens is one of the best athletes they have in a training environment, he said, but when it comes to racing, she battles nerves and mental hurdles in competition. Her focus this year was on skiing like she does in training in competition, and she was seeing the results of her efforts working not only on the hill but also with sports psychologist Sara Mitchell.
Part of that included worrying less about results and more about how she skied and where she improved.
“She’s very tough to please because she can win, but if she didn’t ski the way she wanted, in her head she still won’t be super proud of herself,” Jardine said. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing for an athlete to be that focused on their ability because she’s always tended to be pretty down on herself as far as her performance. I think the only way Laurie would really be proud of how she skied would be if she beat every guy and every girl she raced. Deep down inside I think that’s Laurie’s goal, and it’s not unattainable. She’s very competitive with our fastest male skiers and she knows she can ski faster than she does most races, so she’s hard on herself when she can’t perform that way.”
Next up on the schedule was Sakhalin, Russia, in February, and that’s where the season started to get weird. Despite being a world cup event, very few nations attended the competition. Jardine wanted her to go more for the experience of racing on a mountain she’d never been to in less-than-ideal conditions than the competition itself.
Which, it turned out, was limited to just her.
“I didn’t have anyone else in my category,” she said. “I was the only woman monoskier there.”
As much as she would have like to have had some competition, however, Stephens said it was a good experience both for the reasons Jardine wanted her there and for her work on bringing her training mentality into a race.
“It gave me a race situation without the pressure of racing,” she said. “I still had to go through the whole thing of being there at a certain time, having a set inspection time, having a race time, wearing a bib and things like that.”
And, since it was a world cup race, Stephens still earned points for competing and “winning” seven medals. It was enough to bump her into the top spot in the overall women’s sitting rankings.
Next up was Lillehammer, Norway, and then Sweden, and Stephens hoped to take the experience of Russia into those races. Instead, the team’s flight landed in Norway just as the U.S. government was talking about shutting down flights into the U.S. from Europe and sporting events were being cancelled worldwide.
They stayed in Norway exactly 36 hours.
“We got off the plane, drove to Lillehammer and were told we were training super-G the next morning, then we started getting phone calls and texts late that night saying we weren’t going skiing and that we were having a team meeting at 9 a.m.,” she said. “That’s when we were told they were working on getting our flights changed.”
With the season over with so much left on the schedule, Stephens said she wasn’t even expecting end-of-year awards. Despite it being her first crystal globe since 2006, she said, it comes with mixed emotions.
“It’s kind of hard to be happy, but also hard to be upset about it,” she said.
Now back home in Aspen, Colorado, Stephens can’t get on the mountain with everything closed to the public, but she’s already started working on her own toward the start of next season.
“I think I definitely had improvements this season but there is still definitely work to be done,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t like putting in the time for training and trying to improve as much as I can.”