Aspen-based athletes competing at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, Korea, have won three medals in the four Alpine skiing speed events that have been contested since the Games opened Friday.
Andrew Kurka, the favorite in downhill, men’s sitting, won Saturday’s race on the Jeongseon Alpine Center course which was built specially for the 2018 Olympics and Paralympics. Then on Sunday, Kurka was second in super-G, after pulling out an amazing recovery near the bottom of the course. Kurt Oatway of Canada was gold medalist and Frederic Francois of France took bronze.
Laurie Stephens, whose local roots as an adaptive skier hearken back more than a decade to Challenge Aspen, won bronze in downhill on March 10 and was fifth in Sunday’s super-G. Stephens, a sit skier, has won six Paralympics medals during her storied career: two gold, two silver and two bronze. She has competed in four Paralympics, dating back to Torino, Italy, in 2006, and now lives year-round in the valley. Melanie Schwartz of Aspen was 10th in the women’s standing race.
Kurka, an Alaska native, said Sunday in a statement provided by U.S. Paralympics: “Being a two-time Paralympic medalist is a dream come true, and it feels like everything up to this point has been worth it. That’s really what the feeling is for me.
“When it comes down to it, simply put, this event was redemption for me. All the injuries – breaking my back in Sochi, breaking my femur, all those broken bones – come down to being worth it,” Kurka said.
His aggressive style was on display in the super-G, with a miraculous save after almost wiping out near the finish. Kurka ended up in silver, just nine-hundredths of a second ahead of Francois. Tyler Walker, who trains locally and competes in men’s sitting, was 12th. Stephen Lawler was 23rd in men’s sitting.
A total of 10 U.S. National Paralympic Team athletes, nine skiers and one snowboarder, base their training out of Aspen Highlands and live either seasonally or year-round in the Roaring Fork Valley.
In the visually impaired division of Sunday’s super-G, Kevin Burton and guide Brandon Powell Ashby finished in 10th place. Thomas Walsh took 13th and Jamie Stanton finished 17th in men’s standing.
The national team is coached by Carbondale resident Kevin Jardine, director of Paralympic skiing and snowboarding, and coach Ben Black of Aspen. The athletes work with Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s coaches and the development team athletes during their Highlands seasonal training.
This is Jardine’s sixth Paralympics. On the second day of the 2018 Paralympics, Team USA had scored eight top-10 finishes, according to a press statement.
Kurka, who is also expected to contend this week in the men’s giant slalom, said the U.S. team’s dynamics and experience are such that more medals in the 2018 Paralympics could be expected from the squad.
“We’ve never had such momentum,” Kurka said. “And hopefully that’s going to bring a lot of publicity to the Paralympic movement. As a nation, the support and everything that we get helps to fuel that and hopefully it’ll bring a worldwide movement that brings the Paralympics into the light. That’s what I’m really excited for.”
The U.S. has also won medals in the 2018 Paralympics cross country skiing races, with Kendall Gretsch and Oksana Masters finishing first and third in 12k sitting and Daniel Crossen with silver for the men’s 15k in the Alpensia courses used recently for skiers including Simi Hamilton and Noah Hoffman of Aspen. On the opening day of the Paralympics, Gretsch won gold in biathlon.
Alpine skiing resumes on Tuesday (Monday night in Aspen) with the alpine combined race. The Olympic Channel is airing live coverage of the events, which may also be streamed. Competitions continue through March 18.
Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99