From undefeated superstar Marie Bochet racing against the men to sit skier Jesper Pedersen knocking out the Paralympic men’s standing champion – the first team event in World Para Alpine Skiing history was one to remember.
The World Cup finals in Morzine, France, debuted the event on Monday in front of big crowds. While the team event was only a fun bonus to the programme, the ultimate goal is to make it a permanent feature at international competitions including the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
The team event in Morzine featured nine teams with between two and four skiers in each. In the qualifications, the top two athletes skied down one by one on a shortened slalom course. The best time on the team was recorded with eight teams advancing to the quarterfinals.
Starting with the quarter finals, the competition switched to an elimination format on a parallel slalom course. The strongest teams were matched up with the weakest, and the best of three duels decided the team left in the game.
The match-ups accommodated the differences in classifications through factoring where the skier with the higher impairment was given an earlier push off at the starting gate.
At the team event, all eyes were on Jesper Pedersen. Beaming under the floodlights and pumping with enough adrenaline to mute the blaring pop music on the speakers, the Norwegian sit skier was unstoppable in his pursuit of team gold.
As Norway only had one other athlete, this season’s World Cup debutant Marcus Nilsson Grasto, Pedersen had to compete twice in every elimination round.
It was a shaky start for Pedersen who fell during the afternoon’s inspection as he tried to exit the snowboard-style gate. But when the race started, the Norwegian was on fire, shooting off from the finish to the chairlift again and again to compete in a total of seven runs.
Pedersen started off by beating Paralympic champion in men’s standing Theo Gmur in the quarter finals, ended Bochet’s record of an undefeated season in the semi-finals and took down the home team in the final with such pizzazz that he got an ovation from the French spectators.
“It’s really cool winning here and a great start to the World Cup finals,” Pedersen said. “This event is more for show and it’s a new thing but I think it’s getting here to stay.”
Team France 2, made up of standing skier Jordan Broisin, and vision impaired skiers Thomas Civade and Hyacinthe Deleplace, took silver. Team USA, which featured standing skier Thomas Walsh, sit skier Kurka, and vision impaired skier Kevin Burton, grabbed the bronze thanks to an underdog victory over the top French team, which included Bochet.
“We need to hold more and more events like that and I hope every team plays the game too,” Bochet said. “It was cool. We had a lot of people at the finish line and it was very important to promote disabled sport.”
Wins all round
For Pedersen, a golden start to the World Cup in Morzine is all the arguments he needed to give the team event a thumbs up for the next Paralympic programme.
“Of course! Another gold!” the Norwegian said.
Athletes - whether racing or watching the battles from the finish line - were overwhelmingly in favour of including the team event at the next Winter Paralympics, and even said that they would do specialised training for the event if it were included in top-level competitions.
“It’s something that I would personally love to do,” said USA sit skier Andrew Kurka. “This is a fun event and I don’t know anyone that would be against it.”
The competition in Morzine continues with two slalom races on Wednesday and Thursday. You can watch the races and see live results on the World Para Alpine Skiing website and Facebook page.