Birthday songs and victory celebrations erupted on the finish line in Zagreb as the first World Para Alpine Skiing World Cup of the season came to a close with the second set of five slalom races.
The USA’s Spencer Wood made sure his 22nd birthday was one to remember as he marked the occasion with a third-place finish in the men’s standing slalom.
This was only the second career World Cup race for the skier, and in addition to getting congratulations and a birthday serenade from the other athletes at the finish line, Wood earned himself an arguably even more valuable reward - the permission to shave off his rookie haircut.
“As a member of the US national team, we have this tradition that every male has to get his hair cut by whoever is here or whoever is the last person to get the rookie cut,” Wood said. “I can shave it as soon as I get on the podium.”
In this case, the haircutting duties passed to teammate Thomas Walsh who went for an unusual combination of shaved sides and tufts of hair upfront.
“I enjoy it so far,” Wood said of his eye-catching hairstyle. “Everyone is giving me compliments and they’re excited to see that there’s a newcomer on the circuit and all. But my girlfriend’s not a huge fan and my mother just laughed at me.”
“I’m super stoked [with the result]. I was just trying to keep level headed going into this race, especially between runs because that can definitely get the best of you and slow you down for sure so I was trying to stay super calm and just focus on my execution,” he said. “Everything went so smoothly. Croatia is awesome.”
As for the haircut, “It’s getting buzzed off tonight. It’s official,” Wood said.
Switzerland’s Thomas Pfyl won the race, while Wood’s teammate and amateur hairdresser Thomas Walsh came second.
Jesper Pedersen celebrated the perfect start to the World Cup season with back-to-back golds in the first two slalom races. Although the Norwegian was slower in the second run than his rival Igor Sikorski, his combined time still put him ahead of the Polish skier.
“I always go for the gold, but I didn’t know what to expect because this is my first race this season,” Pedersen said. “It’s good to be back.”
Sikorski was not able to finish the race on Wednesday but had a much more solid performance in Thursday’s second race.
“I didn’t feel good yesterday. I felt a little bit sick, so I didn’t have the power. Today I feel better than yesterday and I’m happy that I finished,” Sikorski said.
“Today the conditions are worse and it’s more difficult. It was challenging. The wind, the temperature, and the snow is soft. Sometimes soft, sometimes icy. It’s random.”
Italy’s Rene de Silvestro took third.
Women vision impaired
Medal favourite Henrieta Farkasova was back on course and eager to win after getting disqualified in the first race of the season.
But the Slovakian and her guide Natalia Subrtova had to settle for second after finishing more than four seconds behind Austria’s Veronika Aigner.
“Second place with a very big margin, not a good result for us,” Farkasova said. “But at least we got to race one slalom because for us this is really just training. We haven’t been training almost at all this season so before the world champs it’s definitely good to have a couple of good runs at the World Cups.”
Aigner is competing at her first World Cup, and at 15 years old, she is not even old enough to race in next week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships. For multi Paralympic champion Farkasova, the new entry is a welcome addition to the tour.
“It’s great. She’s young. She has a whole career ahead of her so definitely she is tough competition,” Farkasova said. “She’s very good in slalom and we just have to try to compete with her and put our best together.”
Melissa Perrine and her guide Bobbi Kelly took another third place in the event.
Men vision impaired
Like Farkasova, Giacomo Bertagnolli also had to overcome a disappointing first race where his guide Fabrizio Casal lost a ski near the finish line. Not letting that setback affect him, the Italian produced two top runs to earn a victory in the second race.
Bertagnolli is coming in to the world championships as a medal favourite in slalom and the defending Paralympic champion in the event. Despite his successful track record, the skier is not letting this put more pressure on him to produce top results.
“No, I don’t feel pressure at all because when I start a race, I just think about the race and how I can improve my skiing so I think about it and then I have no pressure,” Bertagnolli said.
Wednesday’s winner Miroslav Haraus came second in Thursday’s race, while Austria’s skiing veteran Gernot Morgenfurt got third to add to his second-place finish on Wednesday.
“It’s perfect for my age. I’m 53 years old, so it was perfect,” Morgenfurt said.
One athlete who was battling pressure in the second race was Canada’s Frederique Turgeon. The skier received many messages of support after winning the first race of the World Cup, which heaped expectation on her to succeed on her second try in Zagreb.
“It was so huge yesterday,” she said. “Having a medal yesterday, it made such a big wave of encouragement from everyone so today was a little bit more for everyone than myself even though I didn’t want that. But I’m happy I was able to deal with that and still finish.”
Turgeon won her second consecutive race, putting herself firmly ahead in the slalom standings.
“It was a really hard course. I’m not very happy with my technique for the entire part of it but I think it’s just because I’m so tired. I was trying to catch my breath and so many things were going through my head so at the end I was just a little bit upset with the little mistakes that I had but I’m happy overall,” Turgeon said.
Germany’s Anna-Maria Rieder finished 5.79 seconds behind, followed by Slovakia’s Petra Smarzova in third.
“It was not so easy because the wind was often not behind me, but in front of me so it felt like I was slower,” Rieder said. “It was important for me to be on the podium to get a better feeling for the World Championships. The feeling is better and now maybe I can ski better there.”
Complete results from the Zagreb World Cup are available on World Para Alpine Skiing’s website.