Paralympic Winter Games
04 - 13 March

Tokyo 2020 champion Birgit Skarstein has turned her focus to skiing

Norwegian shares love of dancing is key to alternating between Para Rowing and Para Cross-Country Skiing 04 Mar 2022
a female Para Nordic skier on the snow

Skarstein is returning to the Nordic ski slopes after a successful summer rowing season

ⒸGetty Images

After winning a gold medal in Para Rowing at Tokyo 2020, Birgit Skarstein has turned her focus to Para Cross-Country Skiing at Beijing 2022 - and she says her love of dancing is key to alternating between the two sports. 

Norway's 33-year-old cemented her status as a poster girl for Para Sport in her homeland when she topped the podium in the PR1 single sculls last August, but she considers her stint on television show Skal vi danse? (Shall we dance?) just as important when it comes to challenging perceptions about disability.

Skarstein enthralled viewers as she became the first wheelchair user to take part in Norway's version of celebrity dance contest Dancing with the Stars.

"It was totally amazing, I loved it," she said.

"I loved to be able to think outside the box, I loved to surprise and really dive into all the different dance styles, creating something.

"All the children who followed me talked about 'the princess in the golden dress', not the princess in the wheelchair. Children are fantastic because they've got no prejudice.

"Even before I took part in Skal vi danse?, people used to come up to me to ask if they could film me dancing because they wanted to show it to a friend who claimed he or she couldn't dance. It is super important to show that of course you can, you just need to try.

"It's not hard to see your limits. But it's more fun to see your possibilities and focus on what you can do."

And Skarstein says the rigorous training regime she underwent for the TV show has reaped rewards as she switches from rowing to attacking the curves of the ski course.

"I've gained a lot of body understanding and body control, which is beneficial.

"I am stiff and strong. I'm a lump of muscles. That's the first thing my dance partner said, 'You've just got muscles, no flexibility'.

"The dancing gave me a general training in flexibility and precision."

With her success in Tokyo, Skarstein realised an ambition she had worked towards tirelessly since a botched medical procedure following an accident left her paralysed from the waist down.

She describes herself as "a rower who skis" with the latter very much her secondary sport, despite competing at her third Paralympic Winter Games.

Although she always pushes herself hard - she spent five months in the Norwegian mountains training on her sit ski after returning from Japan - Skarstein says the pressure will be off when she competes in the women's sitting sprint, middle distance and long distance events at Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre.

"Beijing will be a practice in not being a perfectionist in everything. That doesn't give you a good life. I will go out and do my best and have fun. I think that is super important."