The first technical races of the season proved to be a rollercoaster full of surprise winners and brilliant performances from up-and-coming athletes.
Veysonnaz, Switzerland hosted the opening stage of the 2019-20 World Cup from 8-12 January, wrapping up with two giant slalom events.
After getting a bronze in giant slalom on the same slope in February last season, Italy’s Rene de Silvestro aimed even higher and earned his first World Cup victory to start off 2020.
The young sit skier led from run 1 to defeat both the Paralympic champion in the discipline, Jesper Pedersen, and the world champion, Jeroen Kampschreur.
“This is feeling really, really good because it’s my first win at the World Cup,” de Silvestro said. “My body is good. It’s all good and it’s unbelievable.”
The victory was a just reward for the hardworking de Silvestro. The skier put in countless hours of strength training in the off season - in addition to getting married - to make incremental, but certain improvements from last year.
“I think this year will be a nice year for me,” de Silvestro said. “I changed my mind a little bit. Before I thought a lot, and now I want to totally have fun.”
The second race in the men’s sitting class was also not without surprises as Igor Sikorski rushed to the top of the podium. The Polish skier was ill at the beginning of the week, but earned an important victory on the last day of competition in Veysonnaz.
“When I arrived here, I was sick and after a few days spent in bed and DNFs and not good starts in super-G, today I finally felt good and I won,” Sikorski said. “It’s a nice feeling.”
Red, some white, little blue
The World Cup opener has been tough on eight-time Paralympic champion Marie Bochet. The undefeated leader from last season struggled through the three super-G races in the women’s standing class and matters did not improve in the technical events.
The French skier finished the giant slalom races with a bronze and silver - an uncharacteristically low placement for Bochet, who was pure perfection last season. “I’m a little bit tired. All the years I was a leader and I lead my category so I’m a little bit lost in my head and I think I miss a bit of fire in the race,” Bochet said.
“I started in Vancouver (2010 Paralympic Winter Games) so it’s been 10 years. I never give up and I give all I can,” she added. “I need a season to breathe.”
Instead of a French victory, the women’s standing class saw the emergence of two winners who were completely absent from the circuit last year. Canada’s Mollie Jepsen continued her victorious streak from the earlier super-G races by adding a third gold at her first major competition since battling Crohn’s disease.
Even more surprising, 17-year-old Zhang Mangqui of China, who is still a relative unknown on the circuit, beat Bochet in both giant slaloms to pick up the first medals for the host nation of the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
Sixteen going on 17
Austria’s teenage sensation Veronika Aigner only has a few World Cup races on her resume, but this has not stopped her from picking up gold medals at each of these appearances.
The 16-year-old swept gold in the giant slalom races in Veysonnaz by a margin of more than 10 seconds to her nearest rival along with her guide and sister Elisabeth Aigner.
“The feeling is very good,” Veronika Aigner said. “The slope is perfect and the run was so cool.”
A similar scenario played out in the women’s sitting class where USA’s Laurie Stephens also won gold in both of her giant slalom races.
“I’ve been trying to be extremely focused on the things I want to improve. It’s not quite there in racing yet, in my opinion, but when is it ever? As an athlete, you should always be trying to be better and better,” said the 2006 Paralympic champion. “I’m trying to focus on improving each day and trying to be the best skier I can be.”
Kings of the slopes
France’s Arthur Bauchet and Canada’s Mac Marcoux went undefeated in all their races in Veysonnaz. Bauchet, who won the overall Crystal Globe last season, proved uncatchable in the men’s standing class.
“It’s hard to compete with him. He’s a really good skier and he knows how to do a fast turn,” said Austria’s Markus Salcher, who finished with a silver and bronze. “With the results I’m happy, but with my skiing, I’m not. There’s definitely more potential to ski faster.”
Meanwhile, Marcoux completed a perfect comeback after missing last year due to injury when he swept gold in the men’s visually impaired races along with his guide Tristan Rodgers.
On both occasions, the Paralympic giant slalom champion Giacomo Bertagnolli was resigned to the silver medal position, which left the ultra-competitive Italian skier in a slight shock.
“I knew that Mac Marcoux was a good skier but this year he is even better than before,” Bertagnolli said.
“Now I have to train more and focus on my goals. It’s always a good thing when someone as fast or more or less like you comes to compete because you have someone to compare yourself to.”
Full results from the giant slalom races are available on the World Para Alpine Skiing website.