Paralympic medallist Roman Rabl stages comeback ahead of Lillehammer 2021

Carina Edlinger interviews fellow Austrian Paralympic medallist whose passion for alpine skiing proved too strong to keep him retired 17 Nov 2021
A male sit-skier competing at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games
Roman Rabl announced his retirement after his second Games at PyeongChang 2018 and now plans to return at Beijing 2022
ⒸJoel Marklund for OIS/IOC
By Carina Edlinger* | For World Para Snow Sports

Roman Rabl has raced on mountain slopes since he was a child. Growing up in Austria’s Tyrol region, the heart of the Alps, he was the true definition of a passionate alpine skier. 

But at the age of 15, his life changed dramatically. Rabl had a bad crash on the slopes and ended up in hospital. 

“At first I thought that I can come back and be able to ski as I used to,” Rabl said. “After a while it was clear that I will leave the hospital in a wheelchair but that did not stop me from coming back to my favourite sport and passion for alpine skiing.”

Ten months later, on 1 November 2007, Rabl returned to skiing. Tyrol has a special club made up of former athletes who want to teach people with impairments how to use a mono ski. Rabl was among those students and after two days of training, he fell in love with skiing again.  

“Of course I had pictured my way of skiing differently, but after a while I realised that I had a big talent in that sport and the thought grew to start a career in Para sports,” Rabl said.

Big Talent

After finishing his education, Rabl was able to receive pro-athlete status and got the offer to work as a customs officer with a sports contract. 

This is a special programme in place in Austria, as well as Germany, which allows athletes to focus on their training while receiving an income and social insurance, thus helping to set them up for life after retirement from competitive sports.

Since his competitive debut in 2009, Rabl has won two silver medals in the men’s sitting class at Para alpine skiing World Championships, two Crystal Globes, in super combined and giant slalom, and seven World Cup races. His biggest achievement to date is winning three bronze medals at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi.

“I am extremely thankful for the support that I got at customs. Without them it’s impossible to live your passion as a professional athlete on such a high level,” Rabl said. “The best thing for me is that during the time there every athlete is committed to getting an education so no matter when you leave sport you have a job you can jump into right away.”

Retirement and comeback

In 2018 Roman decided to step back from competitive sport and get a new job. 

“I pretty much lost the joy of skiing after 10 years as an elite skier. Moreover, I got a nice job offer from Austrian customs to lead the Para sports programme and started a Bachelor’s degree in economics. It was time to focus on something new,” Rabl said.

In 2019 he competed at his last World Championships in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia to finish his career on one of his favourite hills. There Rabl, who is a speed specialist, competed only in slalom and giant slalom because he wanted to minimise the risk of injury given his reduced training hours. 

Being able to enjoy the slopes again on a casual basis after his retirement brought Rabl back to his roots as a passionate young athlete. After a two-year break from competitive sport, he found the ambition to compete again and took part in the Austrian Technical Championships in Carinthia last spring.

Satisfied by their results, Rabl and his friend, fellow Austrian sit skier Markus Gfatterhofer who also retired one year ago, formed a plan for a comeback. 

“Back then a comeback was never an option for me, but having no training in the gates and getting the result that I got at the national championships, I started thinking more and more to try it once again,” Rabl said. “After finishing my bachelor studies in June, I started training again and now I had some good days on snow, which makes me quite optimistic.”

Tyrol’s Ski Federation supports Rabl financially so that he can train and compete. His first races will be in early December at the Europa Cup in Pitztal, Germany and the World Cup in Steinach am Brenner, Austria. He hopes to earn points there to qualify for future events.

“I am super lucky that I get the wild card for the European competition and that the first World Cup will be held in Austria, therefore I am allowed to start as well,” Rabl said. 

“I will just compete in the speed disciplines, which are my favourite ones and where I have the best chance. My technique and the love of risk definitely help me.”

Rabl ultimately hopes to compete at the World Para Snow Sports Championships, which will be held in Lillehammer, Norway from 8-23 January, and the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. As a personal highlight, he is looking forward to the giant slalom races in St. Moritz, Switzerland where he won his first World Cup race in 2013. 

“My comeback is planned for one year, but you never know what comes after,” Rabl said.

* Carina Edlinger is an Austrian Para Nordic skiing world champion and Paralympic medallist who studies journalism. She interviewed Roman Rabl for World Para Snow Sports.