Thomas Walsh competes in giant slalom at Lillehammer 2021. (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
After being postponed due to COVID-19, the historic Lillehammer 2021 World Para Snow Sports Championships finally took place in January. There was no shortage of dazzling finishes and near-misses for the U.S. Para alpine skiers over the 12-day period.
Hafjell Mountain Resort was the setting for the races, and the course posed its share of challenges. High winds, heavy fog and poor snow conditions contributed to numerous crashes and skiers sliding out. Being the highly trained and competitive athletes they are, the U.S. skiers brushed aside the rough course conditions and came away with four medals. The performances at Lillehammer will go a long way in deciding who makes the U.S. Para Alpine team for the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, which is expected to be announced on Feb. 16.
Here are three of the top U.S. Para alpine performances from Lillehammer 2021.
Laurie Stephens: Wenham, Massachusetts
With seven Paralympic medals, a world title and 13 world championships medals under her belt, Stephens came into Lillehammer with no shortage of experience.
That said, Stephens had her work cut out for her during the competition. After sliding out near the end of the women’s sitting downhill event on the opening day, and not finishing the super-G on day two because of a treacherous course, Stephens was running out of time for a medal finish.
The next chance for the 37-year-old Massachusetts native came in the women’s sitting giant slalom competition. Her performance sent a message that she wasn’t about to leave Norway empty-handed.
Stephens took home the gold medal after clocking a combined time of 3:10.09.
The second run proved to be one of the most exciting finishes of the championships. Stephens fought back from third place after the first run to take over second place with a time of 1:35.62, just ahead of Canada’s Katie Combaluzier.
However, they still needed to wait for Anna-Lena Forster of Germany, who had a 14-second lead on the rest of the field following the first run. A clean second run for Forster would secure her the gold medal.
But Stephens caught a break when Forster skidded off the course for a DNF, giving Stephens her second world title, following a 2013 win in the downhill. U.S. Para alpine head coach Tony McAllister said he believes the win renewed Stephens’ confidence heading into Beijing.
“The nature of the race today, it really just shows that anything can happen in ski racing,” McAllister told U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing following the competition.
Two days later, Stephens graced the podium a second time by capturing bronze in the women’s sitting slalom to round out the individual portion of the world championships. That sent her home with 15 career medals from the world championships.
Stephens was a model of consistency during the race. Following the first run, her time of 1:14.89 put her in third place. Just as in the giant slalom competition two days earlier, Stephens was neck-and-neck with Combaluzier in the second run. Her overall time of 2:12.32 was less than three seconds ahead of the Canadian, allowing her to secure the bronze.
Andrew Kurka: Palmer, Alaska
The last time the two-time Paralympic medalist made the podium at the world championships was in 2017, when he picked up three medals, including a gold in the men’s downhill sitting class.
On the opening day in Lillehammer, Kurka just missed earning another gold in the downhill. The Alaska native clocked a time of 1:15.80 to finish third, behind gold medalist Jesper Pedersen of Norway and silver medalist Jeroen Kampschreur of the Netherlands. A bump late in the race likely cost Kurka the world’s fastest time.
“I’m happy I got a bronze, I was just inches away from gold and it shows,” Kurka, the defending Paralympic gold medalist in the event, told U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing. “My competitors are well aware of that and are going to be looking for me coming into Beijing.”
Kurka just missed another podium spot on day two, finishing fourth in the men’s super-G with a time of 1:09.70. Course conditions were especially difficult, as 20 racers across both the men’s and women’s classes failed to finish.
But Kurka wasn’t to be denied the podium on day four, earning another bronze, this time in the giant slalom. Another bump almost cost him in the first run, but he recovered to finish in the seventh position. Kurka finished the second run with a time of 2:21.25, and caught a break when Kampschreur missed a gate, knocking him out of contention.
Thomas Walsh: Vail, Colorado
Walsh barely missed getting a medal in the men’s standing super-combined event, finishing over a second outside the podium with a combined time of 1:55.23.
After a strong super-G run, Walsh was .16 seconds behind eventual bronze medalist Federico Pelizzari of Italy. But a time of 45.58 in the slalom run was fifth-best in the field, earning him the fourth-place finish. Nevertheless, Walsh was pleased with his effort.
“I’m pretty happy with this,” he told U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing. “It was going to be either hit or miss for me. Coming off of an injury from last season, I’m quite happy that I’m still up there and know that I have the potential to push when it comes to the (Paralympic) Games in March.”