British para alpine skier Millie Knight came into her third Paralympic Games not expecting to win a single medal despite capturing three in 2018 and arriving in Beijing as the reigning World Cup Super-G title holder.
But she proved herself wrong on Saturday, teaming with guide Brett Wild to collect Great Britain’s first medal of the Games with a bronze in the women’s visually impaired downhill at Yanqing National Alpine Center. Slovakia’s Henrieta Farkasova won her third consecutive gold medal in the event with a time of 1:19.50, while China’s Zhu Daqing took silver with a time of 1:21.75 in her Paralympic debut.
“I still can’t believe it! We genuinely believed we wouldn’t win any medals at these Games…what a crazy moment this is!” wrote Knight in an Instagram post on Saturday, hinting at the struggles and injuries that affected not only her body but also her psyche since the last Paralympics.
“This bronze is something very special,” Knight told media after the race. “It ranks above our silver four years ago in PyeongChang. We have gone through some tough things, and it has changed us.”
The 23-year-old Knight has suffered multiple concussions over the last five years beginning with back-to-back crashes in the finish area at the 2017 World Championships and four weeks later at a World Cup downhill in PyeongChang. Both times, she crossed the finish line at full speed, smacking into the barriers. But her crash in South Korea was the most severe, flipping her three times and dislocating her jaw.
Despite winning two silver medals (downhill, super-G) and a bronze (slalom) at the 2018 Paralympics, she admitted the injuries affected her performance there. She took a break from competition during the 2018-19 season and says she considered walking away all together, but she returned to action the following season.
“The concussions were awful,” she recalled. “I’d much rather lose more sight than go through a concussion again. The recovery was so slow and so painful, and it knocked so much of my confidence, and I just had so much fear that I’d never be able to just stand in the start again.”
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In February 2021, Knight crashed again at a World Cup in Austria, sustaining a concussion and dislocating her jaw, but she was skiing again five months later. She credits extra focus on her mental training over the last few years, where she’s worked closely with Team GB’s sports psychologist Kelley Fay.
“At the start I was just thinking, ‘Find the seconds, do anything you can do to go faster, it doesn’t matter if you’re scared, keep going,'” said Knight, who became the youngest British athlete to compete at the Paralympic Winter Games in 2014 when she was just 15.
“Crossing the line with a smile on my face was our No. 1 goal. We genuinely didn’t believe we were at the level that would get us a medal. And now we are here, the bronze medalists.”
The medal was just as emotional for Wild, a former ski racer for Scotland who works full time as a submariner for the Royal Navy. He’s been released from service the past few years to guide Knight.
“It’s been so much time on snow, working on building up this trust in this relationship,” said Wild. “We know each other inside and out on the snow. I can tell at breakfast what Millie is feeling – whether it’s going to be a good day or bad day by the way she breathes in the mic when we’re skiing. As a team, we work so well together and I’m unbelievably proud of this today because I know how scary that was for Millie.”
For Farkasova, winning gold – her 10th Paralympics gold and 13th medal overall – also marked a triumph over her own recent obstacles, which included a guide change just one month before Beijing.
“My guide had an injury one month ago at the world championships and I needed to find a new guide,” she told media after the race. “Martin (Motyka) is very good, and I am happy I can race with him.”
The 35-year-old Slovakian racer has also battled back from her own health challenges the last few years after undergoing three surgeries since injuring her knee at the 2019 World Championships.
“It was very hard for me, very painful,” she said. “But now I am back. I am first and it feels very good. I am happy.”