Para Alpine SkiingNewsAndrew KurkaPatrick HalgrenMatthew Brewer

U.S. Para Alpine Skiers Gain Valuable Experience on Cortina Paralympic Slope

by Brian Pinelli

Patrick Halgren competes at the 2024 FIS Alpine Para World Cup in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. (Photo by Fondazione Cortina/Mattia Rizzi)

Paralympians Andrew Kurka, Patrick Halgren and Matthew Brewer cherished recent descents down Cortina d’Ampezzo’s revered Olympia delle Tofane race hill.

Competing at the FIS Para Alpine World Cup in the Italian Dolomites ski resort, Jan. 30-Feb. 2, the races also served as a reconnaissance mission for the three U.S. Para Alpine Ski Team athletes. The Olympia delle Tofane will provide a stern test for competition at the Paralympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026. 

Kurka, the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 downhill gold and super-G silver medalist, unexpectedly won the men’s downhill in the sitting class at the recent world cup. The 32-year-old Palmer, Alaska, skier has battled through significant injuries and setbacks over the past few seasons.

“I really didn’t come out here trying to win the downhill, I came here with the idea that I’m going to ski this downhill smart, I’m going to finish, and prepare myself for Cortina (2026),” said Kurka, who achieved his first victory since badly injuring his shoulder at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. 

“I need to train for consistency and comfort in those situations where the ski gets away from you and that happens a lot on this hill. There’s a lot of terrain, rollers and little airs. It’s steep and you have to commit to every turn,” he informs.

The Olympia delle Tofane is also the same slope where the world’s best able-bodied women’s racers annually compete and will battle for Olympic medals on just a few weeks prior to the Para skiers at the Milano Cortina 2026. The steep and sinuous piste is one of the most iconic slopes in Italy and across the Alps, having debuted 68-years ago at the Olympic Winter Games Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956. 

For the Para racers, the scenic downhill course launches at 7,086 feet and has a vertical drop of nearly 2,000 feet. The signature and most spectacular section is the Tofana Schuss, boasting a maximum slope grade of 65% as racers accelerate rapidly between two massive walls of rock outcroppings.

“A lot of guys are a little worried to stick their face in it – that is not an issue that I’ve ever had,” Kurka says. “A lot of guys were startled, or worried about going down the Tofana Chute – that was the easiest part of the entire course.”

Kurka gained notoriety when he was featured on the cover of Sport Illustrated in the lead-up to the Beijing Paralympics. At age 13, the Alaskan native was severely injured in all-terrain vehicle accident which damaged three vertebrae in the middle of his spinal cord. Two years later, Kurka first tried monoskiing encouraged by his physical therapist through a program called Challenge Alaska.

He is striving to compete in his fourth Paralmpic Games in Milano Cortina 2026.

Andrew Kurka competes at the 2024 FIS Alpine Para World Cup in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. (Photo by Fondazione Cortina/Mattia Rizzi)

Patrick Halgren, 31, is in his fourth year on the U.S. Para Ski Team and like Kurka, brings an ultra-confident approach to his pursuits. The extroverted Beijing Paralympian skied all four races – from downhill to slalom – on the revered Cortina course. 

“I’m going over extra video, lots of extra course inspecting, I’m drawing diagrams in my diary and focusing on every bump of terrain, every nook and cranny,” says Halgren, sharing his diligent preparations for the 2026 Paralympics.

Halgren had his left leg amputated after a motorcycle accident in 2013. His father, who suffered a similar accident, taught him how to ski proficiently on one leg.

“It’s super hard to ski on one leg as it turns out, but luckily my father had so much experience with it and taught me how to properly turn and make it down any slope,” Halgren said. 

“It’s a surreal moment for any disabled person once you can load a chairlift and go wherever you want on the mountain, there is no disability. There are no stairs, no doors you need opened, so this is a beautiful moment and shows what’s really important – health and happiness, and connecting with nature.”

Halgren boldly predicts that he will be the fastest ski racer on one leg come the 2026 Paralympic Games. The Connecticut native competes to honor his late twin brother Lucas ‘Sven’ Halgren, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2016. Sven encouraged Patrick to take up Para skiing after his accident.

“I decided to put all my eggs in one my basket and become the best skier in the world – I think I’m well on my way and having the most fun doing it,” Halgren said. “I’d like to think that I’m the Bode Miller with one leg.”

At age 48, Matthew Brewer is still improving and gaining speed as the eldest member of the U.S. Para Ski Team. Encouraged by four-time Paralympic medalist Stephani Victor, the California native only recently took up adaptive ski racing and currently trains out of the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah.

Brewer is a a cancer survivor, recovering addict, bilateral above-knee amputee and Beijing 2022 Paralympian. 

He elaborated upon his racing experience in Cortina: “The downhill and super-G course was very hard, very slick and not what I’m used skiing on coming from Park City,” Brewer said. “It was definitely a welcome challenge since the Games will be here in two years – it just felt great to ski the hill and familiarize myself with the terrain.

Matthew Brewer relaxes in the finish area after competing in the 2024 FIS Para Alpine World Cup in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. (Photo by Brian Pinelli)

“The venue here is so beautiful and there were a crowd of spectators, so that makes it really fun to compete.”

Brewer has since returnd home to Park City and is racing at the 35th Annual Huntsman Cup, an event dedicated to creating opportunities for current and aspiring Paralympians. He finished third in the opening giant slalom, behind his teammate and champion Kurka.

“We get competitors from all over the nation, all over the world – from Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and it’s just a really great atmosphere,” Brewer said of the event, orgaanized by the NAC. “The level of competition is not quite equivalent to the world cup, but it is a great precursor to finding success on the world cup.”

Also garnering crucial experience on the future Italian Paralympic piste were seven-time Paralympic medalist Laurie Stephens and rising talents Audrey Crowley and Allie Johnson.

Stephens, who turns 40 on March 5, has thrived as one of the preeminent sit-skiers on tour for nearly two decades. In 2004, at age 20, she already became the overall and giant slalom world cup champion in her rookie season. Stephens’ first two seasons led her to being named the Paralympic Sportswoman of the Year in 2006 by the United States Olympic Committee. 

The veteran racer appears full speed ahead towards competing at her sixth Paralympics in Italy.

Just 17 and a rookie on the team, Crowley is one to watch. The Colorado skier finished fourth in the Cortina downhill in the standing class, and fifth in super-G and slalom.

Also residing in Colorado, Johnson, 29, is in her second year on the team and targeting her second trip to the Paralympics in two years.

The Paralympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026 will be held March 6-15, 2026.