“She began the sport, for us all that’s pretty big. For me it all began with her. She took me through the snow for the first time. So without her I wouldn’t be here.”
The Netherlands have strong gold-medal potential at the 2019 World Para Snowboard Championships with the likes of Chris Vos, Lisa Bunschoten and Renske van Beek lining up in Pyha, Finland. But it is likely none of them would be at the start gate on Tuesday if it were not for another Dutch rider.
Multi-world and Paralympic champion, and recently retired Bibian Mentel-Spee was the link for all three to get more involved in the sport.
“Because of her, I started four years ago,” van Beek, 29, said. “She introduced me to the sport and I really looked up to her.
“She’s such a great athlete and it’s too bad that she (retired) but for now I think we as athletes can progress the sport to be the best. And it’s a nice opening for the podium.”
Van Beek had a stroke when she was 10 and was paralysed on her left side. She had skied before, so she tried it out again but struggled to keep her feet together. In 2014, she met Mentel-Spee through the Mentelity Foundation and it has been history from there.
Van Beek made her Paralympic debut at PyeongChang 2018. Ironically, her biggest rival was also her mentor and just missed both the snowboard-cross and banked slalom podiums in the women’s SB-LL2.
Mentel-Spee won both.
“She was a really good competitor,” van Beek said. “I raced her once at the World Championships in Big White, Canada, and she was so good. I noticed she was a good rider and she progressed the sport a lot.”
Van Beek continued: “But I think it is our job now to progress it and I think it’s a nice challenge.”
For 23-year-old Bunschoten, the mentor-rivalry was just as tight with Mentel-Spee.
The two were nose-to-nose on their boards at the last Worlds in Big White, Canada, with the veteran taking the top honours. The situation was just as close in in PyeongChang, with Bunschoten taking the silver.
“She was really important,” Bunschoten said of Mentel-Spee. “In the beginning, she helped us to get into the sport and later on we were competitive with each other, which was different. In the beginning it was good to have her as an athlete and as a coach.”
Bunschoten had her left foot amputated at 16 years old due to fibula aplasia, which caused her left leg to grow shorter than her right.
Through a Winter Sports FUN Day and the Johan Cruyff Foundation, Bunschoten got into boarding. Mentel-Spee was informed about Bunschoten’s talent and got her more involved in Para snowboard.
The Pyha 2019 titles are Bunschoten’s to lose.
“I hope to get on the podium and hopefully on the first spot,” Bunschoten said. “I trained a lot this summer and yeah I’m going for it.”
Her boyfriend Vos was also hooked into Para snowboard through Mentel-Spee.
An accident at five years old resulted in his right leg being paralysed. In 2010, he was inspired by watching a snowboard competition on TV and later came into contact with Mentel-Spee.
That led to his four World Championship titles and a Paralympic silver in the men’s border-cross SB-LL1 category.
“She began the sport, for us all that’s pretty big,” Vos said. “For me it all began with her. She took me through the snow for the first time. So without her I wouldn’t be here.”
One of the smallest, mountain-less nations make a big podium presence in competitions. It has been a combination of Mentel-Spee’s legacy, plus other factors as well.
“Our team had a really good road to Korea, a really good programme and we just love snowboarding. I don’t know why. But we’re just having fun,” Vos said.
Bunschoten had another idea: “I think when we go to the mountains, we really really enjoy it because we are not used to it. So when we go there, we take everything we can and really like it.”