U.S. Disabled Ski Team still strong, but the rest of the world is catching up


U.S. Disabled Ski Team still strong, but the rest of the world is catching up{mosimage}It’s a box score which U.S. disabled alpine skiers aren’t used to seeing. The medals count from the IPS Alpine World Championships showed Austria with 25 medals, and the United States with 24. For years, the U.S. Disabled Ski Team has been the gold medalist in terms of medals collection on the big stages of the Olympics and Worlds. But the world has caught up.

For years, the USDST did it the old-fashioned way: numbers. The team not only had the most medals, it had the most skiers. Every other nation, as it were, battled for silver in the medals count. The USA had the talent and the numbers. At the 1990 championships at Winter Park, Colorado, the U.S. collected 89 medals; runner-up: newly renamed Germany, with 37; at the 1992 Paralympics: USA 42 medals, Germany 22; 1994 Paralympics, USA 39 medals, Germany 32 … and by 1996, it was a standoff as Austria tied the U.S. for the most medals (29) during the championships held in Lech, Austria.

European nations — the teams and their national Ministry of Sport — saw what U.S. skiers were doing, i.e., training year-round, skiing in summer, doing dryland training and strength workouts. They decided to beat the Yanks at their own game: amassing medals by improving ongoing programs.

Disabled events are organized by the International Paralympic Committee in the same way the International Ski Federation oversees able-bodied World Cup action. In Wildschoenau, part of Austria’s Kitzbueheler Alps, during the first week of February the Austrians figured to finally overtake the Yanks. They had more athletes (22 Austrians competed compared to 16 Americans, including a handful of U.S. skiers who got their first taste of international racing in World Cups leading to the championships; coincidentally, neither team has any elite blind racers).

Austria held numbers and home field advantage. And top U.S. mega-medalists such as mono-skiers Sarah Will, Muffy Davis and Allison Pearl plus, among others, one-legged superstars Sarah Billmeier and Greg Mannino, had retired. Mono-skier Chris Waddell, a medal-winner in summertime track events, too, was training for the Paralympics in Athens, so he was missing. Uh oh.

MORE NATIONS COMPETING

Another factor is more nations are competing, poaching on what used to be the U.S. feeding grounds. Exhibit A: Australia, which used to watch Michael Milton get three or four medals in the LW-2 (one-legged) category, swept the men’s super G race and earned eight LW-2 medals; the U.S., which used to see Greg Mannino, Jason Lalla and Monte Meier on the podium, had just one LW-2 medal.

Head Coach Kevin Jardine and his chief lieutenants, John Cole and Erin Sullivan, maintained the young Yanks could surprise. And they did, by nearly matching the Austrians. (Canada, with blind skier Chris Williamson collecting three bronzes, had six medals; Lauren Woolstencroft, an LW-3, with disability of both legs below the knee, took gold in the super G.) Not the frontrunner spot the U.S. is used to, but an impressive achievement, which can’t be overlooked for the underdog Americans.

In World Cup races in France, Italy and even two in Wildschoenau, U.S. mono-skiing women — defending World Cup champ Lacey Heward (who’s delayed a kidney transplant until after the season so she can compete this winter), ’03 runnerup Stephani Victor and newcomer Laurie Stephens, a University of New Hampshire sophomore — were unbeaten. “Because we don’t have the numbers, there isn’t room across the board for error,” Jardine said. “Everyone has to contribute … and that means finishing.” The U.S. men were a question mark but the U.S. women looked strong.

The opening downhills January 31 — on a new course, cut higher on the mountain above Niederau, one of the four villages forming the Wildschoenau valley produced a deadlock: six medals for the homestanders, six for Team USA, including gold for mono-skiers Heward and Kevin Bramble with “Jonezy” .67 over Austrian Danja Haslacher in LW-2. “Training day she beat me by five seconds and on the second training day, I beat her by two,” Jones said. “I was ready…and I had the run of my life. She went first and I came down third, and Haslacher kinda scowled away. She doesn’t like to lose, she’s a downhiller…and here’s this 19-year-old from the U.S. coming down to beat her.”

SUPER SUNDAY FOR SUPER G

Super Bowl Sunday was the super G. Austria — with its men all but owning LW-11 mono-ski racing, winning gold-silver for the second straight race — corraled five medals to four for the U.S. Haslacher tossed a match in the ammo dump as she beat Jones, the silver medal-winner, by 3.25 seconds. Jones seethed through the day off and would return to re-even the score.

For the men, Clay Fox — the defending LW-4 (lower-leg disability, racing with two skis, two poles) world champ in GS — claimed SG bronze behind Austrian Hubert Mandl. “He’s been skiing so much faster on the World Cup,” Fox said, “but being fourth in downhill gave me confidence. It was a big surprise but after downhill, I felt anything was possible.”

Overnight rain softened the snow before the giant slalom February 3 and organizers decided mono-skiing men would run the next day with the smaller women’s field. In LW-4, Austrians took first and second but Fox held on for bronze, the lone U.S. medal of the day. “After the first run the top guys [he was fourth] were like a tenth of a second apart,” he said. “I made a small mistake before the flats on the second run and that cost me time, probably cost me the silver … but I haven’t been skiing GS that well, so this was pretty good.”

A day later, the men mono-skiers and the women raced. Austria 7, USA 6 in the two-day GS medals tally. Jones gold, Haslacher silver (with Sandy Dukat getting her third bronze) in that dramatic tussle. “After super-G, I was pissed. But we had a day off,” Jones said, “and my confidence came back. Amazingly, I remembered how to do GS turns. I did some turns I never thought I’d be able to do on that steep pitch. I just let it go. It was nice because she’s beaten me so much in GS.” For the men, mono-skier Chris Devlin-Young — the first skier to win Paralympics gold in separate classes — had the fastest time on each run and mauled the LW-12 class (lower-leg amputation) to win gold by 3.76 seconds in the largest single class in the championships.

February 5, as celebrations over New England’s Super Bowl victory over Carolina were losing steam, ageless Monte Meier, in his 11th year on the USDST, took bronze in the final slalom and Fox completed his bronze hat trick. Twenty-four hours later, Devlin-Young sizzled through the second run with the fastest time and tied for the gold with German Thomas Mayer. Csilla Kristof (LW-6/8 disabled in one arm or hand) and mono-skier Stephani Victor (LW-12/2), who lost both legs in a traffic crash, won their classes and Jones waltzed to her third gold when Haslacher crashed on her second run. (The bad news: Dukat crashed, too). Austria 25, USA 24.

“It was a great event,” Jardine said. “We had just about everyone sick at one time or another, but nobody gave in. We took 16 skiers to Europe, including several who’d never raced internationally, and 12 were on the podium at one time or another through the World Cups and championships. What Jonezy did in Wildschoenau is epic but we had outstanding skiing from everyone and this was what we needed to get ready for the Paralympics in 2006.” Disabled athletes are used to hearing about how they inspire and motivate, but, first and foremost, they want respect as world-class athletes. In Wildschoenau, U.S. skiers re-earned that respect.



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