Laurie Stephens, Kendall Gretsch Win Gold At Para Snow Worlds
by Stephen Kerr
Laurie Stephens (center) poses after competing in the women's sitting giant slalom finals at the 2021 World Para Snow Sports Championships on Jan. 20, 2022 in Lillehammer, Norway.
The ability to bounce back often defines the greatness of an athlete as much as the number of championships they have won.
U.S. Para alpine skier Laurie Stephens showed that resilience on Thursday, earning a gold medal in the women’s sitting giant slalom competition at the Lillehammer 2021 World Para Snow Sports Championships.
It had been tough going for Stephens during the championships. She was unable to finish in the women’s downhill and super-G competitions due to rough course conditions.
But on Thursday, the 37-year-old Massachusetts native proved why she is a four-time Paralympian and seven-time Paralympic medalist. Stephens picked up her second world championship title to go along with 14 championships medals during her career. Her combined time of 3:10.09 in giant slalom was almost a full second better than the rest of the field.
In a wild finish, Stephens roared back from third to first position in the final seconds with a run of 1:35.62, putting her ahead of Canada’s Katie Combaluzier. Anna-Lena Forster of Germany needed a clean run to keep her 14-second lead over the rest of the field following the first run.
She didn’t get it, skidding off course in the final turns for a DNF, helping Stephens to a memorable win.
“For Laurie, this will provide her with confidence heading into Beijing,” head coach Tony McAllister told U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing. “The nature of the race today, it really just shows that anything can happen in ski racing.”
Para alpine skiers return to the course on Friday with the men’s slalom race followed by women’s slalom on Saturday.
Nordic skiers returned to action Thursday following a four-medal performance on Tuesday that included a gold, one silver and two bronze medals in the long-distance cross-country competition.
Kendall Gretsch picked up her third gold medal of the championships Thursday, while Oksana Masters earned her second bronze in the women’s sitting individual biathlon.
Gretsch, a three-time Paralympic champion, led the competition from start to finish with a time of 52:25, nearly two minutes ahead of the Russian Paralympic Committee’s silver medalist Natalia Kocherova. The 29-year-old Illinois native has had a historic world championships in Lillehammer with a medal in all four of her events, including three gold and a silver. She can add to that count when she competes in the cross-country sprint and team relay.
“I think it’s been a really good competition for our whole team, it’s exciting leading into Beijing so hopefully it just means more good things for us,” Gretsch told U.S. Para Nordic Skiing. “I’m really happy about this one especially with the wind, it made the whole race exciting.”
Masters, a 10-time Paralympic medalist, clocked a time of 55:25 in another tough day of shooting to remain in the world’s third-best finish.
Five-time Paralympian Aaron Pike took silver in the men’s sitting individual biathlon. It was his best performance in Lillehammer thus far, finishing only 23 seconds behind Ukraine’s Pavlo Bal, who took gold and made all but one shot in the shooting component.
“It was a tough day to be shooting out there, everybody’s missing so I was happy to come away with just missing one shot,” Pike told U.S. Para Nordic Skiing. “This is probably the windiest race we’ve had in three years. Every chance you get to put a bib on and race in a biathlon race is experience.”
The team will take a recovery day on Friday before returning for the men’s and women’s cross-country sprint on Saturday. It will be the final individual event of the championships.
After a week off, U.S. snowboarders finally get back in action Friday with men’s and women’s snowboardcross.
Stephen Kerr is a freelance journalist and newsletter publisher based in Austin, Texas. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter @smkwriter1.