Henrieta Farkasova and her guide Natalia Subrtova celebrated the first gold medal at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games on Saturday (10 March), as alpine skiing kicked off with downhill at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre.
The Slovakian won the women’s vision impaired, barely holding off her toughest competitor in Millie Knight with guide Brett Wild from Great Britain, to successfully defend her gold from four years ago.
“It’s definitely different to be confident in your abilities rather than arrogantly confident toward other (athletes) and I think this is the difference that we have,” Farkasova said. “We are confident in what we can do and what we’re able to do to perform. But we never, ever would have reached that point of saying, ‘Yeah we can win it all, there is no one better than us.’”
Farkasova entered as the only returning Paralympic medallist in her category from Sochi 2014, and waited anxiously at the bottom of the course for the 19-year-old reigning world champion to complete her run.
The teenager tucked low as she rounded off the last turn, clocking 0.86 seconds behind Farkasova. Having finished off the podiums in Sochi, the young Brit captured her first career Paralympic medal on Saturday. It was also a first for Belgium’s Eleonor Sana and sister guide Chloe as they came in third.
“I was solely focused on [my guide Brett] and what he was saying and when we crossed the line I heard the massive, ‘Yes!’ And I knew we’d had a good one,” Knight said.
Five more Paralympic champions were crowned in downhill, including one from a nail-biting competition in the men’s standing.
Switzerland’s Theo Gmur recorded an impressive time of 1:25.45 to win his first Paralympic gold.
The 21-year-old emerged as a true medal contender following an outstanding World Cup season that saw him win the overall crystal title. On a sunny Saturday, Gmur set the time to beat for France’s Arthur Bauchet, and defending Paralympic and world champion Markus Salcher.
"I didn’t (think I would win) this morning,” Gmur said. “(I thought) it would be good but I’ve won a gold medal today, it's fantastic. It's my first Games, I have no pressure. I just wanted to ski fast and today I can say my dream can become reality."
Austria’s Salcher looked on course to snatch the gold when his intermediate time came in 0.15 seconds ahead of Gmur’s. But his final sector was slower, leaving Salcher 0.94 off the gold, to end with bronze.
Gmur’s time stood as the fastest of the day, until the USA’s Andrew Kurka skied a perfect run to win gold in the men’s sitting category, with a time of 1:24.11. Despite a disappointing World Cup tour, the reigning downhill world champion rounded off the last sharp turn and held his line to knock Japan’s Taiki Morii off the top spot. New Zealand’s Corey Peters held on for the third position.
Kurka’s win comes four years after he broke his back just before the Sochi Games and was forced to withdraw from the competition.
"This right here is redemption,” Kurka said. "I woudn't change Sochi, I wouldn't change anything that has happened throughout my life.
"It's been my journey to gold. It makes it that much more meaningful, since I have broken my back, my femur, all the bones I have broken throughout my career. All the pain, all the anguish, all the doubt I have ever had, it's all worth it."
Perfect start for Schaffelhuber
Anna Schaffelhuber’s campaign for another Paralympic perfection is off to a strong start. The German won the women’s downhill sitting. As the first to go in her category, the world champion kept her eyes glued to the big screen, knowing her time of 1:33.26 was conservative.
"I was very nervous, I had made my mistakes so I was not sure it would be enough for gold when I saw my time. I was sure she (Claudia) would be faster on the first intermediate because I had my first big mistake before the first intermediate,” Schaffelhuber said.
Compatriot Anna-Lena Forster and Austrian Claudia Loesch threatened Schaffelhuber’s gold medal, both at least a tenth of a second quicker off the start but subsequently caught too much air on their descents and failed to finish.
Instead, Japan’s Momoka Muraoka and the USA’s Laurie Stephens navigated the icy speed course to finish with silver and bronze, respectively.
Debut gold for Marcoux
Making a name for himself four years ago, Canada’s 20-year-old Mac Marcoux with guide Jack Leitch won his first Paralympic speed title in the downhill men’s vision impaired.
Multi-Paralympic and world champion Jakub Krako, guided by Branislav Brozman, was under a tenth of a second faster than Marcoux but just could not hold on, as he took silver. Italy’s 19-year-old Giacomo Bertagnolli and guide Fabrizio Casal stepped on a Paralympic podium for the first time with his third-place finish.
“I started skiing with Jack at the beginning of last season and it’s been awesome,” Marcoux said. “I can’t say more about this guy, he’s awesome. On the hill he’s so strong, you can tell that he instils confidence in me when I see how strong a skier he is and off hill he’s great to be around.”
Heavy favourite Marie Bochet of France was the undisputed winner in the women’s standing, speeding down with a time of 1:30.30. The only way to beat the four-time gold medallist from Sochi and defending world champion is for her to make a mistake on her lines. But she was far from that.
"I did some good training, good inspection. I knew all the lines at the gates. I was full of confidence," Bochet said.
Germany’s Worlds silver medallist Andrea Rothfuss found redemption from Sochi, where she did not finish, by taking the silver with 2.33 seconds behind Bochet.
Canada’s Mollie Jepsen was all smiles standing next to Bochet and Rothfuss in the recognition ceremony, as the 18-yar-old locked in the bronze in her Games debut.
"Four-out-of-five last time (at Sochi 2014), we will see about five-out-of-five this time,” Bochet said.
The alpine competition continues on Sunday (11 March) with Super-G races across all categories.
Every competition can be watched live right here on the International Paralympic Committee’s website. Highlights of each day’s action will also be made available