Snowboarders zipped down the slope in Sochi yesterday as the sport was featured for the first time at a Winter Paralympic Games, uniting amputees, cancer survivors and athletes with cerebral palsy all with a love for powder.
History was made by first gold medallists, Evan Strong of the US and Bibian Mentel-Spee of the Netherlands, who were the fastest down the challenging snowboard-cross course.
An accomplished snowboarder who was on her way to qualify for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, Mentel-Spee was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 27. She lost her leg in a battle with the disease and became one of the advocates of Paralympic sports.
She said her “journey to get snowboarding to the Paralympics was never about winning a gold medal”.
“It was to showcase our sport and to show the kids out there with a physical disability that a sport like snowboarding really can be done as well,” she said.
For her, mastering the sport with one leg was not difficult.
“It was just about finding your balance again,” she said.
Unlike other alpine events that class athletes by the extent of their impairment and adjust for time, snowboarders faced the slope as equals.
That meant athletes missing two limbs would have to race as fast as those missing one.
“It is what it is, it’s made us work even harder,” said Amy Purdy, 34, who had both of her legs amputated below the knees after a bout of bacterial meningitis at 19 almost killed her.
She went on to be an effective advocate for the sport as well as an actress and dance show competitor.
She conceded yesterday that she had been more careful than usual on the steep and icy run before winning a bronze medal.
“Today my legs played a huge role,” she said. “But it’s not all about our legs, it’s about strategy.
“In the future they will probably come up with a classification, but we all were aware of what we were getting ourselves into this year.
“I’ve never been coached until this year, so we’re excited to have this debut and then preparing for 2018.”
The International Paralympic Committee is working on developing snowboarding, said spokeswoman Lucy Dominy.
“This includes developing a factoring system following the conclusion of a research project currently being carried out,” she said.
The course proved tricky for a few competitors, with several falling near the finish line.
The favourite, Igor Ivanov, crawled over the line on his hands to finish as fans in the stands cheered.
Ben Tudhope of Australia was dealing with another challenge: his size. The 14-year-old snowboarder is the youngest athlete at the Sochi Paralympics and was half the size of other snowboarders on the mountain. Ben also has cerebral palsy hemiplegia, which leaves his left side partially paralysed.
“Being so young at the Games feels great. Hopefully I’ll be going to a lot more Games and get way better,” he said.
* Agence France-Presse