It’s hard to use momentum as a springboard from success that’s nearly four years in the past. It’s even more difficult to repeat a historic performance.
But the members of the2021-22 U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team are confident they can do both heading into world cup competition, the world championships and the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
At the 2018 PyeongChang Games, the team captured 13 medals (five gold, five silver and three bronze) in snowboardcross and banked slalom. Brenna Huckaby (Salt Lake City, Utah), Mike Schultz(St. Cloud, Minnesota), and Noah Elliott (Steamboat Springs, Colorado)won gold in their Paralympic debuts. Huckaby was the only U.S. athlete to go undefeated in individual competition.
Earlier this week, the 2021-22 team was announced. It is loaded with experience, returning five Paralympic medalists.
Along with Huckaby, Schultz and Elliott, gold medalist Evan Strong (Nevada City, California), and two-time medalist Keith Gabel (Basalt, Colorado) are also returning.The five combined for eight of the 13 medals at have totaled 10 medals between them at the world championship level.
Joe Pleban (Fredericksburg, Virginia) and Zach Miller (Silverthorne, Colorado) round out the squad and are looking to make their first Paralympic roster. Pleban won two bronze medals in the team’s only world cup competition last season, held in Colere, Italy. Miller won eight medals during world cup competition in 2018.
To meet the minimum requirements for nomination to the national team, athletes must be internationally classified by World Para Snowboard, have a current national or international license, be in the USADA Registered Testing Pool/Clean Athlete Program, and be in good standing.
This season will feel a bit closer to normal, although the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be an issue in the months leading up to the Beijing Games. The USOPC recently announced that all athletes, employees, contractors and others must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain a religious or medical exemption by Nov. 1. The mandate affects all personnel wishing to access USOPC facilities.
“This step will increase our ability to create a safe and productive environment, and allow us to restore consistency in our planning, preparation and service to athletes,” USOPC Chief Executive Officer Sarah Hirshland told reporters during a Sept. 24 teleconference. “That’s a strength we’ll rely on as we navigate the complexities of the Games ahead.”
As of now, China’s guidelines for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games remain unclear, according to Jessica Smith, associate director of sport operations for Para snowboard and alpine.
“China is its own entity and has its own way of operating,” Smith explained. “Right now, there is anticipation of it being a Games year, but also (there’s) this unknown because not a lot of information from China has been put forth. The focus right now is on the competitive world cup season in addition to the postponement of world championships last year.”
The snowboarding athletes have spent the past few months training more on their own than as a collective unit.
“It’s less of a team aspect,” Smith said. “A lot of it is COVID-related. They have ended up doing one-on-one projects with staff members, also in Mt. Hood, Oregon. They’ve been able to get on snow, make it work with their schedules, get that consistent training in courses set up there. It’s more terrain-based for them.”
The first collective team camp is set for October at Stomping Grounds Park in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. World cup season officially kicks off Nov. 28 in Landgraaf, Netherlands. Other stops include Pyha, Finland; Hochfuegen, Austria; Almasa, Sweden;and Big White resort in British Columbia.
Last year’s World Para Snow Sports Championships were postponed due to COVID-19. The new dates are set for January 8-23, 2022 in Lillehammer, Norway. For the first time, the event will feature Para snowboard, alpine skiing and Nordic skiing at the same time in the same city. Approximately 750 athletes from over 30 countries are expected to compete, and the name Lillehammer 2021 will be retained.
“Now athletes and teams can better plan their activities in the lead-up to Lillehammer 2021, while the (Local Organizing Committee) and their stakeholders have more certainty to take the necessary steps to deliver a fantastic event,” Christian Holtz, managing director of World Para Sports said on Paralympic.org.
The athletes have done their best to keep busy with other sports and activities these past few are happy that the competitive season is close at hand.
“The summer was fun and full of new opportunities for me,” Miller posted on Instagram. “But I can’t WAIT for snow to be back under my feet. Here’s to another season full of good times with good people.”