Stephens can call herself national champ at U.S. Paralympic skiing
LINCOLN — On the mountain where she learned the sport, Laurie Stephens made it look easy this week, capturing gold medals in each of the four Paralympic Alpine skiing races she entered at Loon.
For the second consecutive year, Loon Mountain Resort on Monday and Tuesday hosted the International Paralympic Committee’s Alpine North American Races and on Wednesday and Thursday, the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing National Championships.
Stephens was taught how to ride a mono ski by Chris Devlin-Young of Bethlehem and later became a teammate at Loon of Franconia’s Tyler Walker, also a sit skier.
“It’s nice to be back east,” said Stephens, “and it’s good to be national champion.”
A native of Wenham, Mass., now living in Aspen Colo., Stephens has spinal bifida. Stephens is a multi-time IPC world sit-ski championship and a six-time Paralympian medalist, including two golds.
She has her sights set on the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Korea, which is where Andrew Kurka of Palmer, Alaska, is also looking.
Kurka left Loon only slightly less successful than Stephens, capturing gold medals in both IPC sit skiing events and a silver and gold in the U.S. nationals.
Conditions were good on the race course — which began on the Upper Rumrunner Trail and merged onto Lower Coolidge Street — Kurka said, despite the winter being less than good. The snow had a high water content, he added, but overall, “every year this is a great race and this is a great place for the race.”
Kurka was disappointed that Walker, who is still recovering from an injury suffered a month ago and did not race in the U.S. nationals, wasn’t able to compete all four days at Loon; Walker made the most of his limited time, though, winning the silver on both Monday and Tuesday.
“He was my mentor,” Kurka said of Walker.
Kevin Jardine, high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Alpine skiing and snowboarding, said the racing at Loon was an encouraging prelude to the 2018 winter games as well as an opportunity to showcase some current and upcoming talent.
“We’ve got lots of development in the sport and the national team had podiums in all six categories” — men’s and women’s visually impaired, standing and sit skiing — “and we’re the only team in the world to do that,” said Jardine. “I attribute that,” he said, “to having so many development opportunities” for disabled skiers in the U.S.
Thanks to scholarships from adaptive sports programs around the country, Jardine said U.S. Paralympics was able to bring 17 athletes to Loon to compete for the first time in national races.
He added that the U.S. Nationals will be held at a western resort in 2017, in keeping with a policy of rotating venues between the east and west every two years, but was hopeful that an individual race might be contested at Loon next year.