The 2021-22 season promises to be the biggest one yet, with the Lillehammer 2021 World Para Snow Sports Championships and the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games taking place only weeks apart, and the talent-laden line-up at the season’s opening World Cup is solid proof of that.
Landgraaf is hosting two banked slalom races from 28-30 November to kick off the season. Athletes from 24 countries will compete at the event, including 10 Paralympic medallists.
Dutch rider Renske van Beek is hoping to enjoy the home advantage and collect enough points to qualify for Beijing 2022 in the women’s SB-LL2 banked slalom.
“The qualifications are pretty high in the Netherlands so I really have to be at my best to qualify for the Games,” van Beek said. “I have a few other chances this season, but I’m really hoping - because Landgraaf is always my best race - that I just get on the podium.”
The Dutch riders are once again among the medal favourites at the World Cup. Lisa Bunschoten and van Beek consistently show the fastest times in the SB-LL2 races, while Chris Vos is the one to beat in the men’s SB-LL1.
The home team took further steps to up their game this season. A new coach came on board, the riders spent numerous hours strength training in the gym and took several trips to the Alps to hone down their on-snow skills.
For her part, van Beek switched up her technique and worked on improving her turns. She has also embraced a newfound confidence that was missing in previous seasons.
“The most important thing in my case is the mental piece,” van Beek said. “Four years ago, I was scared a lot, everything was new and it was so much all the time. And now it’s more like a routine, you know what works for you and what doesn’t. So with my experience, and the strength that I got and the mental progress I made, now I think, ‘I got this’.”
“I know I did everything in my power to be at my best at this moment. Now I can finally measure myself up to others so I’m super curious where I’m at and what I still have to do,” she added.
One of van Beek’s rivals in the SB-LL2 class is Canada’s Sandrine Hamel, who was missing from the circuit last season due to COVID-related travel precautions. A consistent medallist at the World Cup in the past, Hamel will be trying to get back into race mode in Landgraaf.
“The main challenge is definitely that I haven’t been at the top of the course with the other girls in a while, but I think our coaches prepared us really well for that,” Hamel said. “Even in training, they were trying to do assimilation into what a race day would be like and that always kept us on our toes, even during training.”
Like the Dutch team, Hamel and the three other Canadian riders who are competing in Landgraaf took advantage of the competition lull during the pandemic to improve their technique.
“We worked a lot on drums. I would say that was one of my weaknesses,” Hamel said. “As Canadians we were really lucky because even if we couldn’t travel, we have a great environment at home so we were able to train on different courses. The coaching staff made sure that they could challenge us at every training camp… So I think the whole team is ready to show what we can do this week.”
Paralympic champion in the men’s SB-LL1 banked slalom Noah Elliott has also missed competitions due to the pandemic, but is now returning in full force.
“Beijing and Lillehammer are obviously the main focuses of this season, but I think the main focus is to overcome some of the challenges we’ve all faced and to really get back out there,” the USA rider said.
“Some of my goals are to go there and obviously get good results, but also to do that self-conquering to get past the year that we’ve all been dealing with, so coming together as a team and as a world to do the best that we can at these World Cups.”
In addition to four-time world champion Chris Vos, Elliott’s teammate Mike Schultz will be among his main competition.
The Paralympic snowboard cross champion was second to Elliott at the closing World Cup in Colere, Italy last season but is revamping his efforts to get to the top ahead of Beijing 2022, which will coincide with the release of his memoir.
Japan’s Daichi Oguri and Croatia’s Bruno Bosnjak also show consistently high results in the SB-LL1 class while newcomer Tyler Turner of Canada could be a surprise medallist.
“As far as big threats in competition, everybody has completely shifted and are now riding at a better level than they ever have,” Elliott said. “I wouldn’t rule anybody out. I think everybody is riding really, really good and it will be cool to see how it plays out on race day.”
The USA team also has a strong presence in the men’s SB-LL2 class, headlined by veteran rider Evan Strong who is making a comeback to the circuit, multi-World Cup winner Keith Gabel, and rising stars Zach Miller and Garrett Geros.
In the men’s SB-UL, all the top names will be at the starting gates in Landgraaf. France’s Maxime Montaggioni, Great Britain’s James Barnes-Miller and Italy’s Jacopo Luchini promise to push each other to the limit once again as they head into the showdown of the year.
Live results from the World Cup in Landgraaf, Netherlands are available on the World Para Snowboard website.