The world’s best Para alpine skiing are in Austria for the start of the 2021-22 World Cup season.
Athletes from four continents are set to race in two super-G and two giant slalom races to be held in Steinach am Brenner from 7-10 December. Among them are athletes from Australia, Canada, China and Japan who missed out on last season’s World Cup due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Australia’s standing skier Mitchell Gourley, this will be an even bigger comeback than for his teammates. The 2017 world champion has not competed internationally since getting injured in the men’s downhill race at the 2019 World Para Alpine Skiing World Championships.
“I’ve always stayed in touch with ski racing, but I definitely took some planned time out after that 2019 injury,” Gourley said. “At first that was meant to be just one year to work and complete my masters, but the pandemic turned it into over two years away. I also knew that the one-year break might turn out to be a retirement, but I learned a lot working in ‘real jobs’ over these two, three years and I’m excited to be back ski racing in Europe.”
Aside from his gold in super combined in 2017, Gourley won bronze in slalom at the 2019 World Championships and has competed at three Paralympic Winter Games.
He is now returning to the World Cup with a new mindset and appreciation for the sport.
“Mentally, I think I’ve learned to have more perspective,” Gourley said. “I’m a lot more grateful for all the opportunities that ski racing brings me and I’m determined to enjoy and savour them on this last lap.
“I think my biggest challenge will be managing my own expectations. I need to remember that I’ve missed a lot of skiing, and I’m only coming over for the SG races to get some good training and feelings in before a long season. The GS and SL skis will have to wait a bit longer.”
Gourley will face tough competition in Austria, including the home team’s speed specialist Markus Salcher, overall Crystal Globe winner Arthur Bauchet of France, and Russia’s top threat Alexey Bugaev.
BACK TO THE RACES
While Mollie Jepsen’s absence from the World Cup circuit was shorter than that of Gourley’s, she is expecting to face similar challenges when she gets back on the ski course.
“It’s been since January of 2020 that I kicked out of a World Cup start,” the Canadian standing skier said. “I am going into these races with no expectations and an open mind. It has been almost two years since I have raced and I want to give myself the time to get my start routine dialled and get comfortable in the environment again. I am looking forward to getting some starts under my belt in both the speed and GS races.”
Jepsen won three gold and two silver medals at the last two World Cup stages she competed in. Although unable to travel last season, she used that lull in international competitions to work on her technique.
“We spent a lot of time over the last year going back to basics and working on things in my skiing I have wanted to change - or to try to change - for a long time,” Jepsen said.
“Prior to the 2020-2021 season I had not had very much time to go back to those basics as I was continually battling injury and illness, and the full World Cup calendar. Overall, not much has changed as I always had a massive focus on training both on and off snow when I could, but the time that I have had because of the pandemic to take a step back has been a silver lining.”
The other top standing skiers, France’s Marie Bochet, Russia’s Varvara Voronchikhina and China’s Zhang Mengqiu, will also be at the starting gate in Steinach am Brenner. Zhang was the breakout star of the 2019-20 season and will be in the spotlight more than ever as one of her country’s best medal hopes at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
KEEPING THE MOMENTUM
While some athletes will be making a return to international racing in Austria, others will be looking to build on their successful performances from the previous season.
This includes Italy’s Giacomo Bertagnolli, who remains the man to beat in the men’s vision impaired class, with Austria’s young star Johannes Aigner hot on his heels.
In the women’s vision impaired, Johannes’ twin sister Barbara Aigner will be trying to win more World Cup medals by fending off the challenge from British skiers Menna Fitzpatrick and Millie Knight, as well as Slovakia’s nine-time Paralympic champion Henrieta Farkasova.
Anna-Lena Forster will also look to extend her winning streak from last season. The German sit skier lost only one World Cup race in 2021.
“We have had a very intensive preparation so far and I am happy that the competition season is now starting,” Forster said. “Since we have trained more giant slalom and slalom than speed, I feel more confident in the tech disciplines.”
In addition to the only skier who managed to beat her last season, Barbara van Bergen of the Netherlands, Forster will face tough opposition from Momoka Muraoka of Japan who took last winter season off to train in Para athletics ahead of her home Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
In the men’s sitting class, all eyes will once again be on Norway’s Jesper Pedersen and the Netherlands’ Jeroen Kampschreur as they inch towards an epic showdown at the Lillehammer 2021 World Para Snow Sports Championships. Pedersen will compete there as the home superstar while Kampschreur comes in as the five-time defending world champion.
Live results from the World Cup in Steinach am Brenner, Austria will be available on the World Para Alpine Skiing website.