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Winter Paralympics: Mitch Gourley’s Paralympic medal dream down to Slalom

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Mitch Gourley’s chance for a fairytale finish to his Paralympic career rests on the event described as his “mythical beast”. Find out why.

Former World Champion Mitch Gourley will have to rely on the “mythical beast” that is his Slalom to jag a maiden Paralympic medal, after a simple error cost the Victorian a shot at the podium in Thursday’s Giant Slalom.

Gourley was seventh after the opening run and needed a scintillating second ski to push the medal places.

Gourley briefly lost control entering a gate and his left ski found air momentarily; the Aussie held his line but the damage was already done, and his medal chances gone with it.

At his fourth and final Winter Paralympics, Gourley’s last chance at a medal will come in Sunday’s Slalom.

Earlier, Patrick Jensen was a DNF in his second run in the Men’s GS Vision Impaired.

Sit-skiers Sam Tait and Josh Hanlon were both out of medal contention before their second runs.

THE UNIQUE CREW BEHIND AUSSIE PARALYMPIC STAR

At a Winter Paralympic Games marred by government intervention and athlete unrest before it even started, Australian snowboarder Ben Tudhope’s incredible competitive bond with his multinational ‘Team Unicorn’ is hitting all the right notes.

Australia’s big gold medal hopeful at the 2022 Games in Beijing has qualified fourth-fastest for Monday’s Snowboard Cross SBLL-2 final – not far behind his globetrotting Team Unicorn friends, Finland’s Matti Suur-Hamari (first) and Canadian Alex Massie (third).

PyeongChang gold medallist Suur-Hamari set the qualifying benchmark of 1:01.93 on Sunday afternoon – 0.83 seconds faster than Tudhope – but the Aussie was in cruise control with his focus solely on making it to Monday’s final.

“It’s qualification, it doesn’t really matter for me it’s more of a training run with times and to be in the top half of the field is great,” the 22-year-old from Manly said.

“I’m ready to send it tomorrow when it really counts.”

As the only Para-snowboarder in the Australian team, Tudhope has been isolated from his green and gold teammates in a separate athlete’s village at Zhangjiakou.

But he’s felt right at home alongside his Finnish and Canadian friends and rivals.

“It’s a funny dynamic that we all have, but four years ago when we created the team after the (PyeongChang) Games we made a pact – these guys have been so close to me for my whole snowboarding career so we all agreed to make a team,” Tudhope said.

“Why not? Why not ride with your best friends and just do it as a team as well.”

Just days after Russia and Belarus were booted from the Winter Paralympics following threats of boycotts by competing countries, Tudhope spoke proudly of the unique dynamic of his international snowboarding team.

“We want to go out there and show the world that it doesn’t matter that we are from different countries, it’s who you are, who you want to be close with on tour that really lifts us and I know for myself, my snowboarding ability has gone through the roof with these guys by my side,” he said.

“(Yes) the Games are country based – and I am so proud to represent Australia – but without my teammates I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be motivated to stay (at the top).”

Exactly how close the Para-snowboarding triumvirate is was made clear to the Australian, Finnish and Canadian Paralympic Committees in the lead-up to Beijing, when the request came down to share the same coach, wax technician and physiotherapist while at the Games.

Australian physio Ben Bond was given the call-clear by chief medical officer Steve Reid to also work on Suur-Hamari and Massie during competition, while Finland has shared its wax technician and Team Unicorn’s Swedish head coach, Par Sundqvist, has overseen the trio’s Games preparations.

Dr Reid said once the Covid protocols were satisfied and risk analysis completed, the team agreed that sharing team officials was best-practice in Tudhope’s quest for a medal.

“This came down to a team decision within our management structure,” he said.

“They share the same coach, the same wax tech and at different times of the year, they share physiotherapy services. The request for this event was could the Australian physiotherapist based at Zhangjiakou service the other two athletes in the team.

“We were really quite clear that in terms of any Covid risk, we’re dealing with a team that travels together all the time, they’re all triple-vaccinated (and) they’re clear on Covid protocols.

“If we’d disrupted that arrangement, what would be the knock-on effect to Ben’s final preparation for the most important event not only of this year, but this four-year cycle (and) probably his life.”

Australia’s Chef de Mission Kate McLoughlin, a veteran of Olympic and Paralympic Games going back to 2008, said it was a “ridiculously” unique example of cross-country co-operation but one that was deemed necessary to help Tudhope succeed.

“The worst possible situation would be that Ben didn’t have access to his coach (Sundqvist),” she said.

“I know there’s a chance these guys might beat him, but it could be worse if we didn’t have a (collaboration).”

“The expertise, unfortunately, is not always in Australia so you want your athletes experience the best possible service provision,” McLoughlin added.

“ (Covid protocols) is a big one and that was the first thing we were concerned about … but when you look at it in the grand scheme of things, we’re in a position now where there’s zero Covid cases in both villages.

“Maybe if that shifted and all of a sudden something crept in, we’d probably re-look at it, but at the moment it’s one of those risks we’re willing to take because the alternative is to be really strict about it and potentially destabilise what is a winning formula for Ben.”

Tudhope bested his buddies at Big White in Canada earlier this year to win his second Crystal Globe and he goes into Monday’s final confident he can do the job again, with no hard feelings.

“It’s funny competing against one another because we are teammates and we are close but at the end of the day we do an individual sport. The best way to describe it is we have a great system going,” he said.

“I hope I stay safe, they stay safe and we all have a great race.”

Tudhope will lead the way on Day 3 in Beijing after a disappointing start to the 2022 Paralympics for the Aussies.

Patrick Jensen and sighted guide Amelia Hodgson skied to sixth-place – their best-ever Paralympics performance – in the Men’s Super-G Vision Impaired on Sunday, however both Mitch Gourley and Sam Tait crashed out of the Super-G Standing and Super-G Sitting respectively.

All three Para-alpine skiers are in action from 12.30pm AEDT on Monday in the Super-Combined from Yanqing, before Tudhope goes for gold in the Snowboard Cross SBLL-2 from 2.30pm AEDT.

RISKY PARALYMPICS ‘SPRING’ CALL TURNS INTO REAL MELTING MOMENT

Barely two days into the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games and questions are already being asked of the decision to host the Games in China’s spring.

Those who attended the Winter Olympics a month earlier spoke of frigid conditions pushing -30c, however those temperatures feel a distant memory at the Paralympic Games which began on Saturday.

Games officials were scrambling on Sunday morning (EDT) to get events off without a hitch in the wake of warming temperatures across Beijing and surrounds.

The male and female Super-G alpine skiing events have already been moved forward a day, from Tuesday to Monday, after officials conceded there is “a high risk of snow melting”.

The schedule change has already thrown a spanner in the works of Paralympics Australia’s Games contingent, which will now need to split resources between Ben Tudhope’s push for Gold in the Men’s Snowboard Cross and the four Aussies in Yanqing for the Super-Combined.

“Due to high temperatures and a high risk of snow melting, CSCC made the decision to advance Para Alpine Skiing Super Combined M/W All Classification,” read communication from WPAS management on Sunday morning.

At the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre, where the Alpine Skiing events will run for seven of the 10 competition days, there is concern the man-made ski slopes will need more attention than usual due to the warm weather.

From Tuesday onwards forecast minimums will barely dip below zero – by Wednesday temperatures at the mountain peak could climb into the single digits and Thursday is expected to reach a scorching top of 22 degrees at ground level.

But the warm weather could play into the hands of the Australian team, which is used to training and racing into the later months on the slower, grippier snow.

Paralympic hero prepares to say goodbye after 16 years

Aussie Para-Alpine skier Mitch Gourley spent more than half his life maturing as an athlete and person on various slopes all over the world.

But it was during his near three-year hiatus from competitive skiing that the 2017 World Champion matured the most, and could finally be honest with himself about his battle with anxiety.

As one of Australia’s most respected and credentialed snow sports athletes, Gourley has achieved almost everything possible in Para-Alpine skiing.

Following his crowning victory at the 2017 IPC Alpine Skiing Worlds in Italy, Gourley won a slew of awards including Ski and Snowboard Australia Para-athlete of the Year, Australian Institute of Sport Para Performance of the Year and more.

He was named co-captain of the Australian Team for the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, where he was expected to continue his dominant form from the previous season and cash-in on the podium, having missed out at Sochi in 2014 due to an unbelievable run of bad luck.

But Gourley left PyeongChang once again without a Paralympic medal to his name.

For all of his successes on the international circuit, the Paralympics remained a frustrating feat too far.

It came to a head in January 2019 when, after conversations with a psychiatrist and those closest to him, Gourley chose to step away from competitive skiing for a year to focus on his personal life, which including completing his Master of Business (Sport Management).

“At that point I’d been living with anxiety symptoms for a long time … but sport had always been a protective factor,” Gourley, 30, said.

“But then it had got to the point where it was a driver of some of those symptoms and I realised I needed some space from that to really work on myself.

“I think I maybe didn’t have the words or the confidence to call it that at the time, but over that time I’ve embraced it a little more and found my voice thanks to a lot of other people in sport who have been really brave.”

Gourley’s one-year break became three, in large part due to Covid-19’s impact on travel and the international skiing season, and he entered the workforce back home in Australia to learn how to live life off the slopes.

“It was an incredibly tough decision. I took time out in 2019 – one year off – and the discussion with my psych at the time was that I have to know this is an end, unless there’s a start again, because any break could be an end,” he said.

“In that time I finished my Masters and that was great for practical reasons but also for me to mentally refresh. I realised how much fun going around red and blue plastic poles was, and I was lucky to have a body that was still in it and could still do it, so I jumped back in but knowing that it was a short-term prospect.”

In December 2021 he returned to competitive skiing, knowing the 2022 Winter Paralympics would be his last.

“Being able to own that has really helped me to learn and manage that; managing my illness in a workplace was really helpful and taught me a lot of skills for managing it in my sporting workplace as well when I came back (to skiing),” Gourley said.

“I’m emotional at these Games but that’s not to do with my anxiety, it’s to do with 16 years of my life being wrapped up in this thing.”

When Australian Chef de Mission Kate McLoughlin told Gourley he would carry the flag alongside longtime teammate Mel Perrine at the Opening Ceremony, the Victorian was understandably emotional.

“Knowing that it’s going to be the last time that I ski race after more than half of my life travelling overseas, since I was 15 years old, it’s a huge part of who I am as an athlete but also a person,” Gourley said.

“It’s a lot to process but it’s nice heading in knowing that and being able to embrace that.”

At every Games since his Winter Paralympics debut at Vancouver 2010, Gourley has put pressure on himself to perform. As each Games came and went and the commentary around his lack of Paralympics success continued, internally it affected him.

But Gourley has put the pressure behind him. Having glimpsed a life after sport he has come to terms with his career, regardless of how the next two weeks play out.

“Until now I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself and got caught up in the narrative about the person that did everything but couldn’t do it at the Paralympics,” he said.

“But now I’ve probably come to terms with that and I understand that in two weeks’ time, whether I’m Mitch the four-time Paralympian and Gold Medallist, or I’m Mitch the four-time Paralympian and World Champion without a Paralympic medal, it’s not going to change who I am.

“My life after sport doesn’t change whether I win a Gold Medal, Bronze Medal or come 15th this week and that’s a really special place to be in, because in the past three cycles I’ve been trying to say that, but I haven’t believed it.

“Of course I still want to do well, I still want to represent those people who went before me and put everything out there, but it’s not going to change who I am.”

Gourley opens his fourth and final Paralympics campaign on Saturday in the Men’s Downhill Standing.

FOUR-TIME PARALYMPIC HEROES GIVEN ULTIMATE HONOUR

Soon-to-be four-time Paralympians Melissa Perrine and Mitch Gourley will carry the flag for Australia at the 2022 Winter Paralympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing on Friday night.

The pair learned they would share the honour on Thursday morning, in what will be a fitting first and last for the two retiring greats of Australian snow sports.

Gourley, 30, is a former World Champion and has won just about every accolade Para-Alpine skiing has to offer – except a Paralympics medal.

The Victorian returned to the slopes in December 2021 after a near three-year competitive hiatus and said he was floored when Australian Chef de Mission, Kate McLoughlin, told him the news.

“It took me a second to process,” he said.

“It’s been a pretty emotional month really but I think the emotions of the flag bearing itself and doing that with Mel, it might not hit me until we get close to the stadium, but it’s pretty special.

“You don’t set out with the goal to be a flag bearer – you set out to be the fastest skier you can be, that’s always been my goal and I know it’s been Mel’s too.

“I think the enormity of it will probably hit me on (Friday). The enormity of these whole Games and wrapping up such a huge period of my life is kind of hitting me at the moment.”

Gourley said it was particularly special to share the honour with Perrine, whom he had spent the “best part of 15 years travelling together” with.

“I was still in high school when I met Mel, that’s how long we’ve been doing this together and it’s special to share this – everything – with her,” he said.

“We’ve both been pretty up front that this is it for us. We were both blubbering messes in Austria a week ago on our last day training in Austria and Europe after so many years.

“It’s special to share this moment as well as all those other last moments, and reflecting on all the other first moments we’ve had together and everything in-between.”

McLoughlin said the decision to have Perrine and Gourley lead the team out on Friday night was “a no-brainer” owing to the level of respect the pair commands not just within the Australian team, but abroad as well.

“Mel and Mitch are seen as an institution in this team. The longevity they’ve had in their careers has been pretty amazing – both of them started in Vancouver 2010,” she said.

“Mitch is incredibly well-respected within the international snow sports community and the Para space. He’s got that leadership quality. You could sense it when you came into the village, there’s a level of respect for Mitch. He’s a seasoned professional and incredibly elite.

“And for Mel it’s very similar reasons. She’s been involved in the sport for such a long time, she’s an inspiration not just because of how she goes about her skiing but the way she’s been able to balance her life with international skiing has been pretty impressive.”

McLoughlin said five of the nine athletes would attend the opening ceremony on Friday night.

Sam Tait, Patrick Jensen and Amelia Hodgson will skip the ceremony to focus on preparing for their Downhill events the following day, while Ben Tudhope, who is based a ways further outside of Beijing, will also not attend.

Originally published as Winter Paralympics: Mitch Gourley’s Paralympic medal dream down to Slalom



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