Path to Pyeongchang: Para alpine skiing
With today marking a year to go until the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics, there’s no better time to take a look at how the Brits are shaping up ahead of what could be a stellar year on the snow and ice.
The Great Britain squad will travel to South Korea to compete in four sports, with medal hopes in para alpine skiing, para Nordic skiing, para snowboard and wheelchair curling.
And with World Championships aplenty this season, there’s lots to look forward to on the path to Pyeongchang, with the ParalympicsGB stars looking to build on an historic Winter Paralympics in Sochi three years ago.
“Sochi 2014 was our most successful Paralympic Winter Games ever, with historic performances achieved on the ski slopes including our first ever Paralympic winter gold and a bronze medal on the curling sheets,” said ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission Penny Briscoe.
“Since Sochi, our winter sportsmen and women have been training hard to ensure that they are best placed to put in equally outstanding performances in PyeongChang in 2018.”
Para alpine skiing is the first under our microscope, with some record-breaking World Championships still fresh on the mind.
Record-breaking Knight shines at World Championships
With just 12 months to go until the highlight of the para-sport calendar, a stellar Skiing World Championships is certainly worth its weight in gold.
And that’s exactly the honour that fell upon Millie Knight, guided by Bret Wild, whose last day Slalom silver closed out the most successful Championships by a British competitor.
A dominant force of the World Cup circuit, Knight undoubtedly carried that form into the Championships, taking downhill gold on the opening day in Italy in a time of 1:13.42 minutes.
That added to three silvers and a whole host of encouragement for the skier, ParalympicsGB’s youngest competitor at a Winter Games when competing aged just 15 in Sochi.
“These championships have been such a thrill and the results a fitting culmination to a lot of hard work,” she said.
“If you had said to me a year ago that I would walk away from here with a gold and three silver medals I would have laughed at you.”
Fitzpatrick fighting fit in her bid for glory
After suffering a crash with guide Jen Kehoe in pre-season, it took a lot of guts and determination just for Menna Fitzpatrick to be on the start line in Tarvisio.
But take to the snow she did, and in some style too, joining Knight on the podium after taking downhill bronze as well as a fourth place in the slalom.
An ideal way to get back in the groove, the experience is set to be one worth even more than her bronze may suggest, having previously struggled to hit the heights many know she is capable of.
But with a year to go until Pyeongchang, the trend is only set to continue an upward spiral for both Fitzpatrick and Kehoe alike.
The two triumphed together on their World Cup debut in January last year, then winning the visually impaired title at the Finals in Aspen, Colorado, with the foundations in place to suggest a return to that form is more than just a pipe dream.
She said: “This Championship has been a wonderful experience for me and I can only thank Jen for working with me through the difficult times after my injury when the results were not going to plan and we were a long way off the pace.
“The medal was fantastic, but to be competitive here was also a great way to finish off these Championships.”
Practice makes perfect for Whitley
It may not have been the perfect World Championships for James Whitley, but a marked improvement in the second half in Italy will have given him plenty of encouragement moving forward.
The teenager star finished with two solid runs in Italy to end seventh overall in the slalom, indicative of the form that saw him make a Paralympics debut in Sochi in 2014.
It’s that Games experience which could prove most vital of all in the one-year-to-go countdown, with his knowledge from three years ago set to be an excellent part of his path to Pyeongchang.
“I am really pleased I delivered a better performance in this last race,” he said. “Slalom has always been a favorite discipline of mine, and though I have really enjoyed learning to speed race this year.
“The results at these Championships have not been the best, so it was nice to finish on a good note with a solid top ten result and a platform to build from for next year.”
While a well-earned rest is on the mind for Great Britain’s skiing stars, they can’t be resting on their laurels just yet with more World Cup events to come.
Indeed with the days to Pyeongchang ticking down, it could very much feel a home away from home come 2018.
The team is set to head to South Korea for the final legs of the World Cup, with priority focused on getting back to the winning habit they enjoyed heading into the World Championships.
But while their results have already been in close to perfect shape thus far, Briscoe is keen for the team not to take the foot off the gas ahead of the Games in Pyeongchang.
She said: “The results we have seen already this year, including some fantastic performances from Millie Knight, bode well for the next Games.
“To have already met their medal target for this year, reflects the strength of our ski squad, but margins in winter sport are small and we must not be complacent.”