Dani Aravich competes in the Slovenia world cup races. (Photo: Adrian Stykowski/IPC Media)
Dani Aravich took up Para Nordic skiing a little more than a year ago, so she didn’t expect to be traveling to her first international competition so soon.
But when she qualified for a world cup event in Slovenia despite her limited racing experience, Aravich joined a small group of American athletes that included Winter Paralympic gold medalists Oksana Masters and Kendall Gretsch who made the trip.
Of course, Aravich didn’t know what to expect at her first world cup event, where she raced for the first time against athletes in her own classification.
“I was definitely nervous before my first few races because it was my first time representing the United States at an international event,” Aravich said. “So I felt more pressure, I suppose, because it was no longer just me racing for my local club team or racing under my name.
“I’m now representing my country.”
After spending the winter training in Bozeman, Montana, Aravich and seven other American athletes got the opportunity to finally compete in a world cup event in Slovenia, which ended earlier this week.
It was the only world cup event that U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing will take part in this season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Masters and Gretsch continued their dominance despite the long layoff. Masters swept all six of her races, winning three gold medals in cross-country skiing and three golds in biathlon.
Gretsch finished just behind her American teammate with three silver medals in biathlon and two silvers and a bronze in cross-country skiing.
“The two of them have consistently over the last several years been the top athletes in the world in their class, and for us, it’s a huge advantage for them to be able to train together on a day-to-day basis,” said Eileen Carey, director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing. “As a coach, I see them making each other better through that process.
“I don’t put expectations on what place somebody is going to come in, but we do talk a lot about the process that it takes to get to those results and those are things I see them do every day. So I was not surprised to see them continuing to do their process at this level and to have success in doing it.”
Masters and Gretsch were the only Americans to medal in Slovenia. But Carey said she was more concerned with all the athletes getting a chance to compete against an international field one year before the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. The final results were a secondary concern.
The small contingent of Americans who raced in Slovenia included four members of the U.S. national team — Masters, Gretsch, Paralympic gold medalist Dan Cnossen and 2018 Paralympian Ruslan Reiter.
The rest of the U.S. squad was made up of relative newcomers who have shown potential in Para Nordic skiing — Aravich, Lera Doederlein, Max Nelson and Drew Shea.
“I think it was a really good experience for them to get their first time on a world stage, and they’re all there for a reason,” Carey said of the newcomers. “They have elements of having really good performances.They are not at the point yet where they have all of the elements and they’re putting it together in an international environment setting. So what we want to show them is what exactly does that look like.”
Aravich, who was born missing most of her left arm below the elbow, ran cross country at Butler University. She’ll attempt to qualify as a sprinter in this summer’s Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. She said she hopes to then compete in Para Nordic skiing at the Beijing Winter Paralympics next year.
If she accomplishes both, Aravich will join Masters, who has competed in Para-cycling and rowing, and Gretsch, who also races in paratriathlons, as summer and winter Paralympians.
In the meantime, Aravich said she got advice from Masters about what to expect in her first world cup event in Slovenia.
“Oksana and I talked for awhile specifically about when she was first getting started in the sport of Nordic and how that looked for her,” Aravich said. “And that helped me understand that I am still so new, so I need to not be as hard on myself and just take in the experience and grow from it instead of adding unnecessary pressure.”
While there’s an upcoming world cup event in Finland, the Americans won’t be competing in it. Instead, Aravich and most members on the U.S. national team will switch over to their summer sports and start training for Tokyo.
Still, Aravich said the Slovenia world cup gave her a taste of what an international ski competition feels like — something she couldn’t fully appreciate this winter while competing in much smaller races in Bozeman and in Utah.
“I come from a running background, and I feel like I was able to finally get into a racing mindset and have more of that competitive edge come out in my skiing,” Aravich said. “Whereas other races I’ve done this year, I feel like I’ve been so focused on form and technique that sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m in an actual race.”