Bringing Home Gold from Down Under
Stephani Victor is a 5-time Paralympic Medalist and World Champion. She will be sharing her experiences on the road as the clock counts down to the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Not everyone has Alpine World Cup racing on his or her mind at the start of August, but I did as we headed to New Zealand and Australia for the opening World Cup races. It seems like just yesterday I was sitting on the deck at Royal Street Café enjoying my summer favorite, the Asian Grilled Chicken salad, and mentally packing my winter ski clothing. I have trained in New Zealand with the team many times in the past, but World Cup racing “Down Under” would be a first.
Our World Cup circuit began just outside the tranquil waterfront village of Queenstown at Coronet Peak Ski Area with two Slalom races as part of the Audi Quattro New Zealand Winter Games line-up. After my Paralympic Slalom win in the 2006 Torino Olympic Games, I have had a bit of a reputation for being a Slalom specialist, but even I had no expectations of winning on the first day or at all. We just hoped I’d make the podium and start the season off with a good feeling. New Zealand had reported their warmest winter ever and although the snow coverage started out well in June, by the time we arrived early August the base depth was dwindling. If it weren’t for the freezing temperatures overnight, we may not have had any racing at all. The steep T-lift access to the top of the racecourse made me long for the comfortable chairlift rides in the Wasatch. Being on an island, in the Southern hemisphere in the middle of our summer looking at the sun on the what feels like the wrong side of the sky results in a less than comfortable feeling for ski racing (which in my mind was a great preparation for the Paralympic Games in Sochi less than 200 days away). Unlike the beautiful corduroy groomers I am so fond of early morning on Big Stick, the snow under foot sounded more like metal grinding on metal because it hardly resembled snow, it was blank ice. Fortunately, I was taught by my coach (and husband) to love all conditions both snow and weather. “Skiing is outside” he would say which meant “deal with it.” The sun was warm and the visibility great. From the top of the racecourse I looked out over the valley and took in the views of the other mountaintops in background hovering over beautiful Queenstown and the lake. I thought to myself “I am in New Zealand! Racing!” and I pushed out of the start with such excitement it was as if I was beginning my first season and not my last.
I have had the great privilege of being a member of Team USA for 12 years. I have competed in three Paralympic Games starting in Salt Lake City (incredible to race at home), and I have exceeded my performance at every Paralympics by finishing with my best Games ever in Vancouver (2010) where I won the first Gold medal in the Super Combined and took home two silvers in Giant Slalom and Slalom. How could I possibly top that in Sochi? Well, for my last Games I am going to give it all I have. For me nothing has been more important than the support of my loyal friends and sponsors who are there for me to shake off the disappointments and celebrate with me in times of victory.
I won all four of the World Cup races in New Zealand, two Slalom races in Coronet Peak followed by a Super G and Super Combined in Mt Hutt. For all the hours I discussed with my sports psychologist how to build confidence, I learned that “winning” World Cup races really helped!
I never get tired of hearing the National Anthem and it really means something to know that your athletic performance is the reason why you are hearing it. Each time the American flag was raised and the song began to play I would close my eyes and beam my gratitude and thanks all around me. Grateful that I have not lived my life “confined to a wheelchair” as I was originally diagnosed after my accident. Grateful that I am healthy, strong and able to compete with and sometimes win against people much younger than me. Grateful that my husband is my coach and continues to share this wonderful journey that takes us to every corner of the globe…. to SKI!
Next stop was Thredbo, Australia for four more World Cup races. Please know in advance I spent five hours a day 5-days a week (sometimes six) this summer working with my athletic trainer, Adam Friedman, in Gold’s Gym in preparation for this season. Training pays off. You have to train strength, conditioning, skiing and your mind. Ski races are won by hundredths of a second and your mental edge may be your best skier’s edge. We landed in Sydney and had two beautiful days off in the city to explore and coincidently celebrate my birthday. How wonderful to bask in the sun on Manly Beach and rest in preparation for our next race series. We drove six hours southeast towards Thredbo and it was very apparent we were in a different world, even different from the island world of New Zealand. Not only was it the hottest winter in New Zealand, Australia shared the same warm winter record. We arrived in the Jindabyne Sport Reaction Center which looked more like a cross between a campground and an army basic training facility but it would be our home for the next week. All the teams from around the world were stationed in various cabins around the campus sharing the same dining hall, tuning rooms and outdoor track. The people there hardly seemed like ski racers in their tank tops and gym shorts roaming the grounds looking for Kangaroos. I couldn’t imagine we would see a Kangaroo much less have a family hop right past our front door, but they did!
The best time to see a Kangaroo is at dusk or sunrise and little did we know we would be up before the Kangaroos to make our World Cup races happen. Up at 4 a.m., I would do my morning warm-up routine of Kundalini yoga, eat breakfast and load the vans. Driving in the pitch dark up to ski area my teammates and I shared the task of looking for Kangaroos on the side of the road like deer. They tend to jump out in the road and freeze like a “kangaroo in headlights” (maybe that will catch on).
At the base the snow looked thin, okay you could see patches of dirt and some runs no one bothered to do anything more than let the grass grow. But the World Cup race run started at the summit and to our surprise, a whopping 2,000 meters in elevation. We would have to start the inspection in the dark, loading the chairlift at 6:30 a.m. and start the race at 7:30 a.m. to finish the race before the sun turned everything to mashed potatoes. All the racers were willing to start early and thank goodness it froze at night other wise as we discovered on the last day, the racing would not happen.
Full of confidence and excitement I raced the first Giant Slalom as if I had nothing to lose. I didn’t expect to win, how could I keep this winning streak going? But I did; I won all three of the three World Cup races in Australia to bring home a total of seven gold medals and memories to last a lifetime. I am so infused with energy and excitement for this season. It is the truth, I am fortunate to ski all over the world but every time I come home, I know I have arrived at the best place on earth. I can’t wait to ski in Park City!