More than 500 athletes from around the world are preparing to travel to South Korea to compete on the largest international stage for athletes with disabilities – the Paralympic Winter Games. There will be plenty of excitement with athletes competing in four snow sport disciplines and two ice sport disciplines. To get an idea of what you can expect from athletes with visual impairments, we put together this quick guide.
Currently, athletes with visual impairments can compete in three sports at the Paralympic Winter Games – alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and biathlon.
Alpine Skiing has five disciplines in the Paralympic Games – downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined. Each discipline varies in course construct and number of gates (poles the skiers must navigate between). Downhill and super-G courses are steeper and require wider turns, testing speed, while slalom and giant slalom courses require sharp turns, testing agility. Super combined courses require skiers to complete a downhill or super-G run followed by a single run of slalom. Visually impaired competitors follow a guide who will often use auditory signals via headset to help the skier navigate the course. The fastest time wins but there is a complicated factor system involved that attempts to level the playing field for athletes across impairments. For a history and video explanation of the sport, check out this article from the International Paralympic Committee.
U.S. Paralympics is sending 23 athletes to PyeongChang to compete in Alpine Skiing, eight of which will compete in the visual impairment category. All four visually impaired athletes are returning Paralympians hoping to earn the elusive gold this time around.
Danelle Umstead (Park City, Utah) and her husband and guide, Rob Umstead (Park City, Utah) will return to the Paralympic stage after winning bronze in the super combined event at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Mark Bathum (Seattle, Wash.) and his guide, Cade Yamamoto (Quincy, Wash.) hope to add to the three Paralympic medals they have from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Winter Games. U.S. Navy Veteran Kevin Burton (Erie, Colo.) competed in Nordic skiing at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games and will make his debut in alpine skiing in PyeongChang with guide Brandon Powell-Ashby (Boulder, Colo.). Finally, Staci Mannella (Randolph, N.J) will return for her second Paralympic Games appearance with guide Sadie DeBaun (Park City, Utah).
Alpine events begin with the men’s and women’s downhill on March 10 at the Jeongseon Alpine Center. For the full alpine skiing competition schedule, visit the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games website.
In cross-country skiing, athletes compete in short distance, middle distance and long distance, with course lengths ranging from 2.5km to 20km. Courses are made up of three equal sections of uphill, level and downhill fields. There are five race formats in which athletes can compete – sprint, 10km middle, 20km long, mixed relay and open relay – in both classic and freestyle techniques. The classic technique is when athletes travel the course in pre-made parallel snow tracks. In freestyle, athletes are allowed to create their own path and push against the sides of their skis, similar to the motion of skating, to move forward. Athletes with visual impairments ski behind a guide who helps them navigate the course. Fastest time wins in each event. Check out this video on the history of the sport from the International Paralympic Committee.
The U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team that was announced February 1 will compete in both biathlon and cross-country events according to their specialty or preference. There are not separate biathlon and cross-country teams for Team USA, rather one Nordic team for both sports. The following athletes with visual impairments and their guides will compete at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games: Paralympian Jake Adicoff (Sun Valley, Idaho) and his guide, Sawyer Kesselheim (Bozeman, Mont.), and newcomer Mia Zutter (Sun Prarie, Wis.) and her guide, Kristina Trygstad-Saari (Bozeman, Mont.). Cross-country events will begin on March 12 at the Alpensia Biathlon Center. For the full cross-country competition schedule, visit the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games website.
Biathlon takes the physical endurance required for cross country skiing and adds a requirement of focus and precision in an added shooting aspect. Athletes with visual impairments, as in cross-country events, follow a guide to navigate the course. Athletes race a 2.0km, 2.5km or 3km course three or five times depending on the event (sprint, middle distance or long distance). Competitors must stop once per lap (except for the last lap) to shoot at five targets 10m away with an electronic rifle. For athletes with visual impairments, targets are 21mm in diameter. Headphones are worn by athletes with visual impairments and auditory signals lead them to the target; the higher the tone, the closer they are to the target. Penalties are imposed for any missed target. For more information on the history of biathlon in the Paralympic Games and how scoring works, check out this video and article from the International Paralympic Committee.
Again, athletes on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team will compete in both cross-country and biathlon events. Biathlon events begin March 10 with the at the Alpensia Biathlon Center. For the full biathlon competition schedule, visit the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games website.
Don’t miss the action!
NBC Olympics is televising 94 hours of Paralympic Games coverage and streaming an additional 156 hours of coverage online. Though the broadcast schedule has not yet been released, follow USABA on social media to be the first to know when it is released. You can also follow @TeamUSA and @USParalympics on Twitter to keep up with U.S. athletes and @Paralympics for all things Paralympic Games! Of course, here at USABA, we’ll be focused on how U.S. athletes with visual impairments are doing at the Games but encourage you to follow all nations and classifications competing at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games!
Think you’d like to give skiing a try? USABA hosts two ski camps each winter in Killington, Vermont and Breckenridge, Colorado. Registration for 2019 ski camps will open mid-October or early November. In the meantime, check out our page on skiing to learn what it takes to compete at the Paralympic level.