Jasmin Bambur competes in PyeongChang. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
One crazy season in the books, another looming just ahead.
The U.S. Paralympics Alpine Ski Team wrapped up its 2020-21 Covid-shortened season last month, and already next year’s national team is beginning to take shape. On the slate for next season, of course, are world championships in February and the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing in March.
The 2020-21 season was certainly a test of flexibility and adaptation for program director Kevin Jardine as he and other team officials tried to make the schedule.
“I think our athletes had a pretty decent year considering we did get to race in a number of races throughout the season,” Jardine said. “It might not have been all at the level we would have preferred, but staying busy and active made up for the time we didn’t have on snow.”
Between the lack of training through the summer and fall, he said, they wouldn’t have been prepared for a full world cup circuit. Jardine believes some nations took a risk in competing simply because no one had the typical amount of training leading up that level of competition. Other teams, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, weren’t granted permission to travel.
The U.S. team spent months securing approvals and making and changing plans in order to hold a training camp in Austria in October. It was their first time together since March 2020, when they were brought home from Europe and the world cup circuit as the pandemic took hold.
“Lots of events were canceled at the last minute, things were moved around, nothing that was originally planned on the calendar happened as scheduled,” Jardine said of the season.
One of the things that didn’t happen was the world championships. Originally scheduled for Lillehammer, Norway, in February, the event was moved to January 2022, just two months before the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing.
Four members of the U.S. squad did travel to Europe for one world cup event in February. Ravi Drugan earned his first world cup podium finish, taking third in the men’s sitting slalom, while rookie David Williams got his first taste of world cup competition. Veteran Laurie Stephens found the podium in three out of four races, and speed specialist Andrew Kurka finished fifth in giant slalom.
Several members of the team also battled injuries, including Andrew Harraghey, Thomas Walsh and Stephen Lawler. The healthy team members spent the bulk of the season racing domestically in Colorado and Utah.
Several new and returning athletes stood out in those races and are expected to be named to the 2021-22 national team. They include three-time Paralympian Jasmin Bambur, who retired after 2018 but decided to come back this year and try to make a fourth Paralympic team, and 17-year-old up-and-comer Jesse Keefe, who recently won national titles in the men’s standing slalom and giant slalom.
The national team nomination process is now underway. The team will begin its first camp in preparation for next season with some of the hopefuls on May 3. The selection process takes about six weeks, Jardine explained, and the team will be announced once all the nominations have been accepted.
Being on the national team doesn’t automatically guarantee a spot on the Paralympic team. And not making the team doesn’t mean Beijing is out of the question.
“There are two separate criteria for two events — one making the national team and one making the Paralympic Games,” Jardine said. “If you’re not named to the team this year, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance (to make the Paralympics).”
There will be 30 medal events in alpine skiing at the Winter Paralympic Games Beijing 2022, 15 for men and 15 for women. In total, there will be 140 slots for men and 80 for women, and Jardine said the International Paralympic Committee will release the number of slots each nation is allotted in May.
“From there we’re working on getting criteria approved right now for the Games,” he said. “But it could be based on world ranking by February and also by results at world championships in January next year, which we normally don’t have.
“Since worlds was postponed from this year to next, basically if you medal at worlds, you’ll earn a spot in that discipline at the Games,” he continued. “Then if we have leftover slots, we would base it on world ranking until the team is full. But that’s all in the approval process right now.”