Flips and nose-grabs, wipe-outs and nearly an hour delay – the beast that is snowboard-cross created an epic day on Monday (12 March) at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre.
While technical issues with the start gate made competition run longer, it was worth the wait to watch five Paralympic champions – such as cancer survivors turned golden girls Bibian Mentel-Spee and Brenna Huckaby – crowned at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
The women’s SB-LL2 final featured a nail-biting, all-Dutch match up between Sochi 2014 champion Mentel-Spee and the reigning snowboard-cross World Cup title winner Lisa Bunschoten.
The two made contact before approaching a jump, with Bunschoten stumbling on her landing and taking Mentel-Spee with her. It was Mentel-Spee who was the quickest to return on her board – doing a quick check on her compatriot whose goggles flew off – and completing an inspiring journey back to the top of the Paralympic podium.
"I can’t tell you, it's just amazing,” said Mentel-Spee. “It's such an amazing feeling and I’m so happy and I'm so stoked, especially after the last couple of months. I'm just so stoked that it all went fine and I got the gold."
The former able-bodied snowboarder waited at the finish area for silver-medallist Bunschoten, who was taken to the hospital after a cut to her cheek.
"I think Lisa Bunschoten gets the credit as well,” Mentel-Spee added. “It was really tight racing up until we crashed and we both could have won. She's so strong nowadays and she’s absolutely the next super champion, so I’m really feeling bad that she hurt herself, but luckily she's OK.”
Astrid Fina Paredes fell to her knees in amazement and touched her head to the snow, soaking in her bronze medal moment after beating the Netherlands’ Renske van Beek. It was also Spain’s first medal in PyeongChang.
Sensational debut for Huckaby
The podium did not seem even possible for women’s SB-LL1 favourite Huckaby early on. The 22-year-old’s best qualification run was only .75 seconds fast enough to make the top-four and advance to the knock-out heats.
The reigning world champion survived her semi-final heat, and in her final race, managed to break away from Sochi bronze medallist and fellow US rider Amy Purdy to capture her first Paralympic medal.
"In the start gate I said to myself, 'For (my 20-month-old daughter) Lilah', because that is one of the main reasons... and pushing through trying times to show her that she can do anything that she wants,” said Huckaby, who lost her right leg to osteosarcoma. “It was hard today but I just reminded myself why I do this and it's for her and that helped.
"It was such a trying and intense day and to be able to walk away successful is huge."
French snowboarder Cecile Hernandez defeated Canada’s Michelle Salt for the bronze, to go with her silver from Sochi 2014.
Upset in men’s SB-UL
Australian Simon Patmore managed to stay upright all the way to the men’s SB-UL finals and take the gold over Italy’s Manuel Pozzerle.
It was an unexpected match-up, with Mike Minor falling on contact with Pozzerle in the semi-finals and falling out of contention for gold.
"It was a team effort. I couldn't have done this without having these guys (his two Australian snowboard teammates) and Joany (Badenhorst) all of them. If I didn't have these guys in my life through the whole process, the three years I have been snowboarding for, I wouldn't have been successful,” Patmore said.
The USA’s world champion Minor entered as the heavy favourite, adding flare at the end of each of his qualification runs on Monday, including a flip in his second run that wowed the crowds. After the disappointment, Minor returned to meet Italy’s Jacopo Luchini, who spun out during the small final, and Minor staying on course to leave with bronze.
Action sports accidents to Paralympic triumphs
Staying upright was also key in the men’s SB-LL1 and SB-LL2 finals, won by the USA’s Mike Schultz and Finland’s Matti Suur-Hamari, respectively.
Both had their legs amputated due to accidents in action sports.
After losing his left leg in a motorcycle accident nine years ago, two-time world champion Suur-Hamari could not imagine being a Paralympic champion.
"Never ever. This is pretty rad, when I was laying in the hospital bed I never could imagine that I would hold a Paralympic gold medal in 2018. This is awesome,” said the two-time cross SB-LL2 world champion.
The Finnish rider came a long way from 11th at Sochi 2014, as he beat out the USA’s 2014 bronze medallist Keith Gabel, who could not stay balanced in the early portion of the run.
Japan’s Gurimu Narita took home the bronze. Owner of the latest overall World Cup crystal globe, Narita clocked the fastest qualifying run and had strong chances to make the big final. But a fall in his semi-final heat set him up against US reigning Sochi 2014 champion Evan Strong. While crashes are the pains of snowboard-cross, so is managing to stay inside the gates, and for Strong, missing a gate disqualified him for reaching the podium.
But his compatriot Schultz topped a strong US performance on Monday, as the nation capture six of the 15 medals available.
Losing his left leg 10 years ago in a snowmobile accident, Schultz showed vast improvement over the last year, and the overall World Cup winner added gold to his resume. He overcame the young Dutch threat in 20-year-old four-time world champion Chris Vos, who was part of the young field from Sochi 2014.
Noah Elliot joined his fellow countryman on the podium after beating Austria’s Reinhold Schett for third place.
"What a day,” Schultz said. “It started out rough on my time trial and I went down and got shuffled back to fifth place and unfortunately I had to square up with my teammate Mark Mann pretty early on. But I won, and won again, and won again and (got) a gold for Team USA. It's an incredible feeling.”
Banked slalom will wrap up snowboard competition on Friday (16 March).
Tickets for PyeongChang 2018 can be purchased here.
Every competition as well as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies can be watched live right here on the International Paralympic Committee’s website. Highlights of each day’s action will also be made available.