There were a lot of expectations riding on Giacomo Bertagnolli ahead of the opening World Cup races in Steinach am Brenner, Austria. But instead of buckling under this pressure, the Italian vision-impaired skier delivered his nation three medals, including two gold.
Named Italy’s flagbearer for the Opening Ceremony of the upcoming Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, Bertagnolli was at the centre of the spotlight at the Austrian ski resort, which hosted two super-G and two giant slalom races from 7-10 December.
“I have been nominated as flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2022 and this makes me super proud. It is a very important and unique task,” the double Paralympic and five-time world champion said.
“This important role motivates me even more to strive for what I want, because the flag does not guarantee me the victory.”
TWO MEDALS FOR NEWCOMER VOZZA
Bertagnolli and his long-lasting guide Andrea Ravelli came second behind the home star Michael Scharnagl and guide Florian Erharter in the first super-G race, but the Austrian skiers fell behind in the second super-G and giant slalom, finishing with silver medals in both.
The first giant slalom race was cancelled on the morning of the competition due to heavy fog.
“For this World Cup season I have prepared as usual, lots of training on the course and in the gym,” Bertagnolli said. “This year’s World Cup will help me calibrate myself and understand my level in relation to my opponents. The last two seasons have not helped and the comparison is essential for me in view of the World Championships in Norway and the Paralympics in China.”
Meanwhile, Bertagnolli’s teammate Martina Vozza was a surprise medallist in the women’s vision-impaired class. The Italian youngster made her World Cup debut last season and won her first medals at the 2021-22 season opener - a silver and a bronze in super-G.
Slovakia’s Alexandra Rexova and Henrieta Farkasova split the gold medals in the women’s vision-impaired with Rexova winning the first race and Farkasova picking up the next two gold.
GOLDEN STREAK FOR LES BLEUS
French ski star Marie Bochet has been sitting at 99 World Cup wins since her last victories at the World Cup in Sakhalin in February 2020. Last season was a frustrating one for the Frenchwoman who has been at the top of the women’s standing class for more than a decade but now struggled to find the motivation to continue competing in the sport.
That long wait - and frustration - came to an end on the first day of the 2021-22 World Cup season as Bochet won two back-to-back gold medals against a tough competition field that included Russia’s Varvara Voronchikhina and Canada’s Mollie Jepsen, who finished with two silver and two bronze medals, respectively.
The giant slalom was less lucky for Bochet as she finished third while China’s Zhang Mengqiu, the host nation’s top medal hope at Beijing 2022, took the gold.
Bochet’s teammate, overall Crystal Globe winner Arthur Bauchet, brought France another three gold medals in the men’s standing class. And like his teammate, he also felt the growing threat from the Chinese delegation.
World Cup newcomer Liang Jingyi was just 0.09 seconds behind Bauchet in the first super-G race and fast enough to earn himself a bronze in the second race, outracing more experienced Paralympic and world medallists.
LEADER BIB FOR VAN BERGEN AND PEDERSEN
Aside from Bauchet, Jesper Pedersen was the only athlete to achieve a full sweep at the World Cup opener.
The Norwegian sit skier looked in danger of losing his winning streak in the giant slalom when he finished the first run 0.32 seconds behind his biggest rival Jeroen Kampschreur of the Netherlands. But Pedersen made a comeback in the second run, making up for lost time and even getting 0.22 seconds ahead of Kampschreur.
While three-time overall Crystal Globe winner Pedersen is used to wearing the leader bib, for Barbara van Bergen it was a new experience. The Dutch sit skier earned the coveted red attire when she finished first and second in the women’s sitting super-G races.
“It was the first time I got to wear the leader bib. Pretty special as it means I am on the right path,” van Bergen said.
“We started our pre-season in the second half of August back on snow. I must say that the weather gods haven’t been on our side as we had a lot of bad weather days, closed glacier days. But the days we did have on snow were absolutely fabulous and we worked a lot on the next steps in my technical skiing. The times we were at home I worked a lot on physical training - strength, conditioning, mobility, and core - to prepare for the on-snow training.”
The Dutch speed specialist beat five-time Paralympic medallist Momoka Muraoka of Japan in the first race and finished behind her in the following races to collect two silver medals.
“I absolutely love the speed races. They fit me the best as an athlete,” van Bergen said.
“I guess that being able to set aside fear and enjoy the insaneness of going so fast is what gives me an advantage. And we have been able to train on (speed) a lot with the team.”
The World Para Alpine Skiing World Cup continues in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which is hosting two slalom and two giant slalom races from 17-21 December.
Full results from the races in Steinach am Brenner are available on the World Para Alpine Skiing website.