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A New Quad Meant A New Process This Season For U.S. Team

By Lela Moore | April 06, 2023, 3:15 p.m. (ET)

Saylor O'Brien competes at the 2023 FIS Para Alpine World Championships. (Photo: Marcus Hartmann)

Shortly after the conclusion of the Paralympic Winter Games 2022, the U.S. Para alpine skiing team had an overhaul in its staff and leadership.


Before a new Paralympic cycle began, the team brought in Tony McAllister to be the associate director of high performance for U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing. As the season approached, McAllister said the focus for his team was reviewing its ski fundamentals.


In some cases, McAllister said, that meant learning how to ski race again.


“There was a lot of trust that had to be established,” McAllister said.


The turnover served as a kind of clean slate for the team, according to McAllister.


“We felt in most categories, for men and women, there was opportunity to really raise the bar and raise the level of the performances that we’ve been putting in,” he said. “We grasp those weaknesses as opportunities to break through where they’ve been before.”


A renewed emphasis on mental performance and mental health, McAllister said, also helped athletes learn to talk to coaches when they felt something was not right, and to receive the needed help.


“For me,” he said, “that’s a real positive.”


The back-to-basics approach initially resulted in a dip in most athletes’ results, which McAllister said was disheartening to some of his skiers. However, the skiers’ willingness to reach out to their coaches and to him and explain their doubts was encouraging.


“You got to keep trusting it,” he said.


When the emotions had passed, McAllister said he worked on building that trust between athletes and his process.


“And then, as we predicted, as the season went on and we got more comfortable with it, the performances started to come around,” McAllister said.


That didn’t necessarily mean competition results improved, McAllister noted, but rather the athletes’ actual performances on the slopes. He also praised the discipline of the athletes in striving to improve. In a competitive environment, McAllister said, everyone is striving. Being complacent and relying on what was done in the past was a recipe that wasn’t going to cut it.


“We’re going to get beaten by the same amount, by the same people,” he said. “We need to stick to this to get past that threshold.”


The goal is to create a foundation now that will carry the team into the second year of the Paralympic cycle. The skiers will then continue to build upon that progress in seasons to come.


Some of that progress was seen March 15-17 in Cortina, Italy — which, along with Milano, will host the Paralympic Winter Games in 2026 — where the team competed in its last world cup event of the season.


McAllister said, he saw “some aha moments” for several athletes in Italy, and said, “there were gains for everybody, whether it was psychologically, emotionally, physically, technically, tactically.”


The site presented challenges even to the team’s veterans. Even though the team spends the bulk of their season in Europe, this particular course was tricky to navigate. The Dolomites, a mountain range that runs across northern Italy, including Cortina, are a UNESCO World Heritage site. As such, the course has no modern highways leading to it, McAllister said.


“There’s lots of little, windy, old roads,” he said. “It’s not like these massive new highways that they built coming into Sochi or PyeongChang,” the sites of the 2014 and 2018 Winter Games, respectively.


Another thing that stood out to the team was the crowds, with northern Italy having a strong base of ardent ski racing fans. The world cup races drew plenty of spectators, and McAllister expects the Games will draw even more.


Despite the novelty of the venue, McAllister said the event was hit for the U.S. team.


“The feedback I got from my staff and the athletes was overwhelmingly positive on all fronts, in terms of how they were looked after, from the local organizing committee, the level of organization, the execution of the event, the number of volunteers, everything seemed to be well thought through,” he said.


The weather was the only variable that did not work in their favor, but even the weather delays had some benefit in that they helped athletes work on their mental preparedness, McAllister said.


“Having to refocus and then refocus and then start again so that you’re at that absolute peak of pushing at the start gate. It’s really difficult,” McAllister said. “You can’t really do it in training. So it was a great opportunity for everybody to go through that multiple times to be able to have some tools and some processes in place.”


Conditions at prior Paralympics have been similar, he said, and now the team will understand if it happens to them again in three years.

Lela Moore

Lela Moore is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.