Just a few months ago, U.S. cross-country skier Sydney Peterson wasn’t planning on competing at this week’s Winter Paralympic Games. The 20-year-old says the Paralympics weren’t even on her radar until October.
But on Monday in Beijing, competing in the first Paralympic event of her career, Peterson won silver in the women’s long distance classical cross-country race (standing classification). Canada’s Natalie Wilkie claimed gold – her fourth career Paralympic medal – and fellow Canadian Brittany Hudak rounded out the podium with bronze.
“It feels absolutely surreal,” Peterson said after the race. “I never expected to be here. This opportunity to race has been an amazing experience.”
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Peterson has been skiing for almost her own life, but she is still relatively new to the para sports world. She entered her first ever para cross-country skiing competition in December – finishing fifth at a World Cup race in Canmore, Alberta – and then competed at January’s World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Lillehammer, Norway, where she won three medals.
But because Peterson was so new to adaptive sports, even her three-medal performance in Lillehammer wasn’t enough to automatically qualify her for Beijing. Instead, she had to rely on receiving an invitational spot from the World Para Nordic Skiing and the International Paralympic Committee, which was confirmed in mid-February.
Even after her world championship success, Peterson didn’t enter the Beijing Paralympics with too many expectations.
“All the girls here are super strong skiers so I didn’t exactly know where I would stack up, but getting splits from coaches part-way through was a big encouragement,” she said. “I just tried to focus on being super happy to be here and going out and having a fun race and not worrying too much about what every other person was doing.”
Peterson, who grew up in Lake Elmo, Minn., was 13 years old when she was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological condition that causes excessive, involuntary muscle contractions.
“The biggest thing that’s helped me deal with [dystonia] is finding something that I love and trying to keep active in it,” she told the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. “Since skiing is such a physical activity, it has helped motivate me to continue and try and get better, even though it’s definitely been very frustrating at times.”
Peterson also competes collegiately at St. Lawrence University, where she is a sophomore. She is slated to enter at least two more races in Beijing: the sprint freestyle, middle distance freestyle, and possibly a relay, too.
“I’m just excited to put on skis a couple more times,” Peterson said.
Video of the Women’s Long Distance Classical (Standing) at the 2022 Winter Paralympics:
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