Members of the US Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team take practice runs at Winter Park in 2019.
Since the first Paralympic Winter Games in 1976, more than 2,000 athletes from dozens of countries have competed in Para alpine skiing, but the sport was born out of a much different worldwide event.
After World War II, veterans living with amputations resulting from their time in battle began to discover ways to return to the sports they loved. Developed largely in Germany and Austria, the sport of Para alpine grew and before long organizations were formed and races were held. The sport then expanded to include visually impaired athletes, and in 1976, Para alpine and Para Nordic skiing became the two sports included in the very first Winter Paralympics in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden.
Since that time, the U.S. has won a world-leading 91 gold medals in Paralympic alpine skiing and produced some of the most decorated athletes in the sport’s history, including Sarah Will (13 medals, No. 2 all-time among women) and Greg Mannino (12 medals, No. 5 all-time among men).
The sport has also grown to include five types of races, but what’s the difference between them? All involve hurtling down the hill for time on a course filled with gates, but what are considered speed events and what are considered technical events? What came first? Let’s take a look.
Slalom and its cousin, giant slalom, were the first alpine events contested at the Paralympics (along with a combined event). Considered the most technical of the disciplines, slalom requires racers to go down not one but two different courses in the same day, and their times are combined into one total time. The courses in slalom are the shortest of the disciplines, ranging from a vertical drop of around 450 to 750 feet, and also have the most gates, hence the high technical requirements.
As the name implies, giant slalom is similar to slalom but runs on longer courses with fewer gates. Athletes still have to race on two different courses, and it’s still considered a technical event, but the vertical drop generally ranges between 1,000 and 1,300 feet. A total of 64 men and just 14 women from 28 countries competed in slalom, giant slalom and alpine combined in 1976, and the disabilities included were amputations and visual impairments. The U.S. had only one competitor, Bill Hovanic. Four years later, U.S. athletes won Team USA’s first Winter Paralympic medals, all in alpine skiing. Cindy Castellano and Doug Keil each won gold in women’s and men’s slalom and giant slalom, respectively, while Kathy Poohachof won silver in women’s giant slalom and Janet Penn won bronze in women’s giant slalom, all in their respective classifications.
Downhill racing was added to the Paralympic program beginning in 1984 in Innsbruck, Austria. The fastest of the events, athletes don’t have as many gates to contend with but they do have to ski as fast as they can down a long, steep course and they only get one run instead of two. Paul Dibello won one of his four gold medals that year in downhill, and throughout the 1990s the U.S. had a number of athletes dominate in their categories. Mannino was unbeatable in the LW2 classification during the decade, winning gold in 1992, 1994 and 1998. Will, Sarah Billmeier and Nancy Gustafson were among the fastest women not only in the U.S. but also the world in their respective classifications, with each winning consecutive gold medals in 1992 and 1994 (Billmeier and Will each won a third too, in 1998 and 2002, respectively).
Super-G came on the scene at the 1992 Winter Games in Tignes an Albertville, France. First introduced in the world of competitive skiing earlier in the 1980s, super-G falls somewhere between the slalom and downhill courses in terms of length and is another speed event. Also like downhill, it’s one run and done. Mannino also dominated in this event, winning gold in 1992, 1994 and 1998, and visually impaired skier Brian Santos won gold in 1992 and 1994 in the B3 classification. Will and Billmeier combined for six gold medals in super-G between 1992 and 2002.
For those who are both fast and technical, this event shows off both. It’s a race consisting of two different runs on the same day, and while the combinations can change it’s usually either a downhill or super-G plus a slalom run to test a skier’s skills. An alpine combined event was included in the original 1976 Winter Games and was held again in 1984, but then wasn’t included again until 2010 in Vancouver.
Sitting, Standing And Tandem
While Para alpine has five races, each races has multiple divisions due to the different categorizations. Stand skiing has always been part of the Paralympics, while tandem skiing for visually impaired athletes and sit skiing (also called monoskiing) were added later.