Grand County Paralympians prepare for Sochi
With Team USA currently leading the medal count in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, excitement is beginning to stir for the upcoming Winter Paralympics, held in the same Russian city and using almost all of the same courses and terrain.
The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), headquartered at Winter Park Resort, will be sending 35 athletes to the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, with a number traveling to Sochi from Grand County, where they live and train with the NSCD.
The athletes also make up more than half of the entire U.S. Paralympics team.
Some of the top prospects for the games, set to begin on March 7, will be representing the NSCD and have been training with local coaches in the Winter Park area to prepare for the games.
Athletes from the NSCD have been nominated to compete on the alpine skiing team, Nordic and biathlon teams, and the first-ever Paralympic snowboard team for the upcoming games.
The Sochi Paralympics will be the inaugural snowboarding competition for the Paralympics, with three of the U.S. athletes hailing from the Winter Park area.
While the snowboarders won’t compete in events like halfpipe and slopestyle, they will compete in boardercross races, where athletes battle to gain the top spot while zipping down a winding course riddled with jumps and tight turns.
The bronze medal for the men’s snowboard cross in Sochi was claimed by an American, Alex Deibold, and the men’s snowboard cross team for USA’s Paralympic team hopes to make it to the podium in the same event, like they recently did in a World Cup race on Jan. 25.
Mike Shea, from Winter Park, is the top prospect for the men’s Paralympic snowboard team with his other male teammates close behind him.
“It’s been a long road working toward this,” Shea said. “For the level of sacrifice we have made, it feels good to have finally made the Sochi team.”
Last January, Team USA named Shea “athlete of the month,” beating out snowboard celebrity Shaun White, after claiming three World Cup titles for the month.
While Shea is feeling the pressure to perform after such a successful season, he said he feels good about his and his teammates’ prospects.
“It’s good to have that success going into the games,” Shea said. “It gives you a little bit of confidence.”
The NSCD will also be sending Keith Gabel and Matty Robinson to Sochi to compete on the men’s snowboard team.
On the women’s side, snowboarder Heidi Jo Duce will be representing the NSCD. Duce is currently ranked in the No. 2 spot for women’s boardercross, tied with another American athlete, Amy Purdy.
Duce, an Ouray native who now calls Winter Park home while training, is relatively new to the world of competitive boardercross, though it hasn’t stopped her from claiming a number of podium spots this winter.
While snowboarding will be making its debut at the Paralympic Winter Games, many of the athletes representing the NSCD have participated in previous Paralympic sports.
One of the skiing veterans is Alana Nichols, a sit-skier. At the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, Nichols claimed two gold medals, one silver and one bronze to become the top medal winner for Team USA.
Nichols, who also holds a gold medal for wheelchair basketball from the 2008 Paralympic games, is originally from Farmington, N.M., but has been training with the NSCD in Winter Park since 2008.
After winning gold in giant slalom and downhill in 2010, Nichols became the first female athlete to win gold in both the summer and winter Paralympic Games.
Nichols is competing this season at Sochi despite dislocating and tearing three ligaments in her shoulder in June 2013. But after a long summer of physical therapy, Nichols says she is back and feeling good.
As evidence of her strong recovery, Nichols has cllaimed a number of podium spots this season, and is currently ranked as the third top prospect in super-g and the fourth top prospect in giant slalom.
The women racers at the Paralympic Games will be using the same course the men are currently racing on at the Olympic Games. The course is made up of extremely steep and off-camber turns with some of the biggest jumps competitors have ever seen on a downhill course.
Those jumps and turns are particularly difficult for mono-skiers, but Nichols says she enjoys the challenge of the harder course.
Nichols already skied the course during a tour of the facility last February.
“I honestly liked it,” Nichols said. “There is definitely some harder jumps, but it’s a fun challenge.”
Nichols said she’s excited to travel to Sochi and is taking the time now to concentrate on the smaller things like nutrition.
“I just want to get there, do what I can with what I have, and ski as fast as I can,” she said.
Four other American athletes who represent the NSCD will accompany Nichols on the women’s alpine team as she tries to defend her medals.
Allison Jones is one of the top prospects racing with Nichols and is ranked in the No. 2 spot for the slalom race as well as the fourth and eighth spots for giant slalom and super combined respectively.
Team USA has high hopes for Dannelle Umstead, a visually impaired skier, and her husband and guide Rob Umstead, who reside in the Winter Park area, to do well in the games. She’s ranked sixth in slalom and super combined.
Lindsay Ball and Staci Mannella are two other NSCD athletes that competing for Team USA in Sochi, with Ball ranked seventh in giant slalom and Mannella ranked seventh in slalom.
The NSCD will have nine men on the alpine ski team for the Sochi Paralympics, including Jasmin Bambur, a Granby resident, and Gerald Hayden, a Winter Park resident, who are both ranked well going into the games.
Tyler Carter, Ralph Green, Joel Hunt, Ian Jansing, Stephen Lawler, Pat Parnell and Jamie Stanton make up the remaining men to represent the NSCD.
Nordic and biathlon
Dan Cnossen will be the top prospect for the American Nordic team going into his first Paralympic Games after a successful season on the World Cup circuit.
Cnossen is on active duty with the U.S. Navy though calls Winter Park home. He is ranked sixth for cross-country skiing and 10th for biathlon.
Sean Halsted and Andy Soule are the other two men on the Nordic team representing the NSCD.
Halsted is another top prospect going into the games and the Nordic team’s coach, Mark Birdseye, thinks it could be a shootout between Cnossen and Halsted for the podium spot.
Halsted is ranked 13th in cross-country skiing and Soule is ranked ninth in biathlon.
Beth Requist has called Winter Park home for years and will be one representative for the NSCD on the women’s Nordic team with Oksana Masters and Tatyana McFadden also competing for the NSCD on the women’s team.
Masters is ranked 11th in cross-country and 13th in biathlon going into the Paralympics with McFadden close on her heels, holding the 14th spot on cross-country and 16th in biathlon.
Reid Tulley can be reached 970-887-3334
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