Laurie Stephens competes in PyeongChang. (Photo: Mark Reis)
As the clock ticks toward the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, there is still a level of uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. China has yet to implement guidelines. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee recently announced all athletes, coaches, employees and contractors must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, or obtain a medical or religious exemption.
Nevertheless, the past few months have provided a measure of optimism. While things haven’t returned to complete normalcy, athletes have gotten back to a reasonable degree of training and preparation. From a condensed 2021 season to training camps this past summer, skiers were just glad to get back on the slopes after a tumultuous 2020.
The mood heading into the final months before Beijing is a mixture of anticipation and calculated optimism.
“There’s still a curiosity of what Beijing is going to bring because it’s a separate entity from Tokyo,” explained Jessica Smith, associate director of sport operations for U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing and Snowboard. “I think there’s a lot of lessons learned. But I don’t think the winter side is affected by Tokyo. We definitely look to it as the Games actually taking place and knowing it can happen.”
Oregon’s Mt. Hood has operated ski and snowboarding camps on its Palmer Glacier since 1979. The summer camp offered skiers a chance to concentrate on fundamentals and fine-tune basic techniques.
In August, the team trained in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, focusing on race preparation and discipline. The benefits went beyond the obvious physical aspects of being primed for Paralympic competition. As valuable as individual training can be, it doesn’t match the atmosphere and intensity of the team aspect.
“The aspect of team training together versus isolated training has returned, which is a really nice cohesion aspect amongst the team,” Smith said. “It’s been very helpful for our staff, too. In the winter of last year, a lot of it had to be more isolated with a lot less collaboration together.”
The team will continue to focus on advanced race training in October, when they will return to Saas-Fee.
“(It’s) simulated races where they’re timing and getting that feedback where they feel the next step would be to compete,” Smith explained. “That progression has been really good and positive.”
The first alpine race takes place in November at Panorama Mountain in Canada as part of the North American Series. The world cup season kicks off Dec. 17-21 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The much-anticipated World Para Snow Sports Championships have been rescheduled for Jan. 8-23, 2022 in Lillehammer, Norway. The competition was initially set for February 7-20 of last year, but was postponed due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“With the championships now taking place about eight weeks before the 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,” Ola Keul, director of the Lillehammer 2021 Local Organizing Committee said last spring.
For the first time, the event will feature Para alpine skiing, Para Nordic skiing and Para snowboard simultaneously in the same city. The name Lillehammer 2021 will be retained.
An estimated 750 athletes from over 30 countries are expected to take part in the world championships, making it the largest Para sport event in Norway since the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
“It changes the atmosphere, but it’s no different than what a lot of (the athletes) have experienced in previous Games environments,” Smith said.
Other world cup competitions include Åre, Sweden (Jan. 27-30), and Veysonnaz, Switzerland (Feb. 6-13). Additional domestic races will be scheduled over the next few months.
The Beijing Games will feature 30 medal events in Para alpine skiing, 15 for men and 15 for women. A total of 140 slots will be available for men and 80 for women, a 7.7 percent and 33.3 percent increase respectively from PyeongChang 2018. Slots are determined by world rankings and performances in upcoming competitions.
The pandemic will continue to be a storyline as the Beijing Games get closer. Tough decisions will have to be made. But that isn’t dampening the spirit of athletes who have waited eagerly to perform on the big stage.
On the last day of the summer camp in Saas-Fee, two-time Paralympic medalist Andrew Kurka summed up the mood of everyone in this Instagram post: “Last day in @saasfee Switzerland! See you again in a month! #beijing2022 is on the WAYYY!”