Evan Strong competes during the men's Para snowboard cross standing at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 on March 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
New milestones seem to arrive in the Paralympic sports world with each passing year — be they in participation numbers, access, media coverage or any number of in-competition exploits.
For athletes in three winter sports, though, this was a big one.
The idyllic winter sports town of Lillehammer, Norway, had stepped forward to host the inaugural World Para Snow Sports Championships, a historic event that would for the first time bring together competitions in for Para alpine skiing, Nordic skiing and snowboarding.
The announcement came in late 2018, with the event set for February 2021.
“Lillehammer and Norway have delivered fantastic events and festivals before and I know they can do it again,” Birgit Skarstein, a Paralympic cross-country skier from Norway, said at the time, reflecting the optimism shared by many in the three sports.
Of course, we all know what happened between then.
The event that once promised to elevate Para sports to a new level was postponed, like so many others around the world, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Optimism was replaced by uncertainty for the athletes who hoped to use Lillehammer as a springboard for the next year’s Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing.
And yet the world keeps turning. And much like togetherness in the face of hardship is a major theme for the Beijing Games, the world championships can also set an inspiring example.
“We have the amazing power to inspire the world,” said Oksana Masters, a multi-sport athlete who is aiming to qualify for her third Winter Games as a Nordic skier, “inspire society, and change the way people view hard circumstances and difficult choices and show that anything is possible with the right mindset.”
Now with sports on their way back and excitement growing for the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, which begin in 100 days on March 4, the historic combined world championships are back on. For Team USA athletes, it will still mark an important steppingstone on the way to Beijing.
The rescheduled event is set for Jan. 8-23, 2022, while retaining the Lillehammer 2021 name. In addition to being a crucial test for athletes just weeks before the Paralympics, the world championships will also factor into which Team USA athletes qualify for Beijing, with the final roster announcement coming afterward.
And that’s not to mention the increased exposure of having all three world championships together under the same banner — and now in a Paralympic year, with the increased media coverage that comes with it.
“With the championships now taking place about eight weeks before the (Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter) Games, we are optimistic that the next season will be an all-time high for the athletes with increased — and well deserved — awareness of Para Snow Sports in general,” said Ola Keul, director of the Lillehammer 2021 organizing committee, when the new dates were announced in April.
The back-to-back big-time events are a welcome development for many of the U.S. Para athletes planning to compete this winter, many of whom were hit particularly hard as their sports were all but shut down during the early stages of the pandemic.
Over the past two years, just finding competitions has been a challenge, and athletes have had to get creative just to stay in shape.
“This is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Evan Strong, a two-time Paralympic medalist in snowboarding, during the Team USA virtual media summit in October. “So, just being adaptable, being able to roll with the punches as professional athletes, it’s just like, no matter where we’re at, what we’re doing, just give us the opportunity and we’ll do what we do best.”