AVSC dominates season’s first NorAm
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – If there’s such a thing as an embarrassment of riches, then the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s Adaptive Team should be blushing a bright crimson color.
After five days of alpine racing at the season-opening NorAms, the club dominated the men’s giant slalom sitting category, scored podiums in every single event in women’s sitting and won its first-ever medal in a men’s visually impaired race.
“We’ve done well,” said Barrett Stein, now in his second year as director of AVSC’s Paralympic Alpine Development Program. “As far as a team, yes, we’ve won the most medals,” he added.
It doesn’t hurt that about one-third of the 2012-13 U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing National Team, including Tyler Walker, who landed on the podium in all six events this week, is part of AVSC. Aspen local Jonathan Mika lends his coaching expertise to the national squad.
For Walker, a three-time X Games medalist and veteran Paralympian, “I’ve had a fantastic week.” By Friday he had won two super Gs, one giant slalom and both NorAm slaloms. He was also second in another giant slalom, finishing behind his teammate Heath Calhoun.
Solid offseason work – Walker spent the summer at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and has been on snow more than 50 days since September – gave him the confidence to believe that “I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been.”
The success of the national-team members clearly spills over to AVSC’s development squad, who battled for results all week against an international field that includes competitors from Canada, South Africa, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina and Chile.
The addition of the super G races might have inspired extra entrants, said chief of race Rob Mueller, who works for Disabled Sports USA.
“Last year topped 85 athletes. We have 110 now,” he said, adding, “It’s great to see all of the countries come here for this. It gets the season off right.”
AVSC’s Brian Follett loves skiing in flat light because sunlight can create unwelcome shadows on a race course for someone with a visual impairment.
“In the sun down here, I can’t see the gates. In the shade, I do,” said Follett, who lost his sight to Lyme disease as a pre-teen.
After a disappointing first attempt Thursday, Follett and his guide, Scott Jones, recorded a blazing second run to finish as the surprise silver medalists. It was an emotional victory for both racers and coaches.
Wednesday’s giant slalom was another day of celebration for AVSC as Heath Calhoun, Tyler Walker and Andrew Kurka swept the podium in the men’s sitting category.
“I just want to continue to learn and get better,” said Calhoun, who was thrilled to edge his teammates. Kurka also earned two other silver medals this week.
Laurie Stephens was solid with three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. In Friday’s slalom, she won the second run by almost 2 seconds.
There were plenty of victories for other teammates, even if they didn’t involve a podium or medal. Chris Slavin’s fifth place in a giant slalom was big after a harrowing ride down the mountain on a substitute ski in super G. Teammate Mel Schwartz was consistent in her sixth-place finishes and took fourth on Friday. Strong skiing in several events by Joel Hunt, Aaron Howell, Josh Elliott and Trey Humphrey could be a starting point for their eventual elevation to the national team.
“It’s a bittersweet thing for sure,” Stein said, allowing that training newbies is extremely rewarding but watching them leave for the national team can be a little bit, well, sad. Yet there seems to be no limit to the number of up-and-comers who want to join AVSC’s program; five athletes have expressed interest in switching over to what is currently considered the world’s strongest adaptive team.
Katrina Schaber’s motto is, “Train harder, ski faster and maintain a 3.5 grade-point average.” The 15-year-old from San Diego, who represents Mammoth, Calif., and competes in the women’s standing division, was among the youngest racers in a field that also attracted 50-year-old Erik “E-Bay” Bayindirli, of Turkey.
They both share the same goal: qualify for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
That event will probably be adaptive skiing’s biggest stage since ESPN dropped its mono skiercross and skiercross events from the 2013 Winter X Games at Buttermilk.
“That’s a huge bummer,” Walker said. “ESPN better than anyone else was able to highlight the fact that we’re elite athletes.”
The U.S. Senate’s recent decision to reject a U.N. treaty modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act also could be considered a “huge bummer” but one that won’t set back the recent progress made in adaptive sports.
Disabled Sports USA’s Mueller said that public interest in adaptive athletics is growing by leaps and bounds, due to several factors including extensive media coverage of last summer’s Paralympics in London.
“That was the most successful Paralympics ever,” he said, adding that social media helped make the games one of the most tweeted events of the year. The BBC also includes a designated tab on its website for adaptive results, a conduit that Mueller hopes media outlets on this side of the Atlantic will consider, too.
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