Climbing The Podium: Kiwis at the Winter Paralympics

The Winter Games, both Olympic and Paralympic, usually pass with minimal mention down under, but in the case of the compact Kiwi Paralympian team heading to South Korea this March, there’s reason to take notice.

For a global event that is heavily dominated by northern hemisphere athletes, New Zealand participants more than hold their own. The growing event (in its 12th incarnation) on the Paralympic calendar is almost 25 percent bigger than the last, 2014, games in Sochi, Russia, with more than 650 athletes taking part in 80 medal events. The variety on show is as rich as the Olympic equivalent and 45 countries are represented, the majority of top contenders coming from the European or North American slopes, where alpine adventures are a core sport and way of life. Miniscule in size in comparison, the three-strong Kiwi team attending comprises more than medal hopefuls, however – they’re favourites.

The Location

South Korea is a country that has only ever won two Paralympic medals in the snow and on the ice. So, to host these Winter Games, growth is definitely the main agenda. And South Koreans are open-minded and easily encouraged into new sporting markets, with golf and football two of the huge growth markets in the past few decades. Situated on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula, PyeongChang is home to a small population of around 50,000 people and also several historical sites, but the main drawcards are the numerous ski resorts and natural attractions. Relatable to Kiwis, sheep farms are one of these natural attractions, the forested paddocks often blanketed in thick snow. Only about 120 kilometres from the country’s capital Seoul, PyeongChang could easily find itself on the to-do lists for winter chasers.

The Kiwis

Although getting only lean pickings in recent Games, Kiwis have always maintained a competitive place since 1980, when they first competed in Geilo, Norway. Only two medals show for the past three Paralympic Winter Games, but the Kiwi team have come home with as many as six, three times in succession, from 1994 to 2002. After dipping their toes in 1980, an eight-strong team descended onto the slopes of Innsbruck, Austria, in 1984 and came back with excess baggage of five medals. The undoubted star of the team was Vivienne Gapes (nee Martin) who bagged the country’s first-ever gold at this event followed by a pair of silvers in subsequent downhill disciplines. To prove it was no fluke, Gapes would repeat the dose at the World Championships two years later in Sweden.

To participate against the might of the North American, European and, specifically, Scandinavian nations was an honour in itself, but after a lull for the next two cycles, Kiwis returned to the podium often between 1994 and 2002. And gold was the colour and currency they were dealing in, with 11 of the 18 won that golden hue. How do the current Kiwi team stack up? In 2018’s case, Corey Peters, Carl Murphy and Adam Hall don’t just have skin in the game, they are all ranked in the top three globally, in at least one of their disciplines. The tight-knit trio are the same troupe as went to Sochi 2014, but with more experience and awards under their belts. To put the nation’s Paralympic success in perspective, New Zealand has only ever won a single medal (silver) in the full Winter Olympic Games.

The Events

Giant Slalom/Downhill/Super-G – Sitting
Originally devised as a way for disabled German and Austrian World War II veterans to ski socially, Para alpine skiing was introduced at the first Paralympic Winter Games in 1976. With the aid of a customised single ski that enables the athlete to sit, Peters and his fellow competitors fly down the mountainside at about 100km/h, making sure they don’t miss the gates. For Peters, one of his main threats and rivals for the gold is Andrew Kurka from the US, the favourite for many.

Giant Slalom/Downhill/Super-G – Standing
Like the same events at the Olympics, athletes negotiate the flagged downhill course at incredible speeds. Hall’s greatest success has come in the Slalom discipline, but has overtaken himself in the Downhill, which is faster and less technical. As Peters will find, Hall’s rivals are much younger… but do they have the experience and ability to handle pressure?

Banked Slalom – Para snowboard
Negotiating the bumps, bends and banks of the snowboard course whilst following the gated course… the simple explanation of the banked slalom. But doing it at rapid speeds? Getting a clean run is vital to any medal chances and a sound technique is a good start. Under the time pressure, Murphy’s not too shabby and although he is closer to 40 than 30, he’s top three in the world for a reason.

The Paralympians

To go one better will be Peter’s aspiration on the powder of South Korea, and he has good form and memories of this specific competition’s slopes. Peters won the trial event there last year and was a stark reminder to his opposition he’s the one to beat. The scary thing is, Peters’ hasn’t had that long in the seat. He only started out in 2011, after a motocross accident two years prior left him paralysed. Peters took little time in getting the courage to take on then work out his new sport. Three years on from his first social run and he was to become a silver medallist at the Sochi 2014 Paralympics in the Giant Slalom – Sitting. Combined with a fourth in the Super-Combined and a sixth in the Super-G, it was a phenomenal breakthrough. Leading the way, Peters’ silver was the only medal won by the Kiwis in Sochi but was a platform for greater things. As the PyeongChang event nears, Peters is in the crosshairs of his rivals, having won three silvers and a gold in 2017’s World Cup and Championship series. And Peters’ highest rank in the world isn’t in his medal-winning discipline; he is now third in the world for the Super-G and fourth in the Downhill.

If Peters was close to the gold in Sochi, then Hall wasn’t far off the podium either. While he wasn’t in the medals last time around, Hall has happy memories of the Paralympic Winter Games, having won the 2010 gold in Vancouver, four years after his debut in Torino. And, recent form suggests the veteran hasn’t shifted from his place near the top after a Slalom – Standing bronze at the 2017 World Championships. Known for his ability in the more technical disciplines, Hall is ranked third in the Downhill – Standing, displaying a knack for straight out speed as well. Born in Dunedin, Hall has always been close to the snow, and from the age of six took to the peaks, taking up snowboarding at age nine. In order to compete at the highest level, the Wanaka resident decided to return to the ski and has been rewarded with three gongs as New Zealand’s best overall snow sportsman.

‘On the cusp of something great’ is the best way to describe Murphy’s chances in PyeongChang. Close as one can get, Murphy notched a fourth place finish in Sochi, announcing himself as genuine contender. Outside of the Paralympics, however, the 38 year old is a veritable spring chicken, having won gold at the IPC World Cup Canada three years ago and grabbing a silver at the X Games. In his chosen event, the Banked Slalom, Murphy is ranked third in the world and is still more than competitive enough to be up in the medals again, claiming a bronze in September at World Para Snowboard Cup.