In men’s vision impaired alpine skiing, two women ‘lead’ at Paralympics

Alpine skier Marek Kubacka (left) and guide Maria Zatovicova (right) compete in men's giant slalom vision impaired at the 2022 Winter Paralympics. Zatovicova guides Kubacka, who is blind, down the mountain by using verbal commands.
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In alpine skiing’s vision impaired classification at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, two of the athletes ‘leading the way’ are women.

In Beijing, Australia’s Patrick Jensen is competing with guide Amelia Hodgson, while Slovakia’s Marek Kubacka skis with Maria Zatovicova.

Jensen’s best finish so far came in the men’s super-G (sixth), while Kubacka, the 2019 world champion in giant slalom, finished just off the podium in that event. Both Jensen and Kubacka are slated to compete in the final alpine event of the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games – men’s slalom – on Sunday morning in Beijing (Saturday night in the United States).

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It’s been a bittersweet Games for the 33-year-old Kubacka and Zatovicova, who finished fifth in giant slalom four years ago in PyeongChang and came up just 1.55 seconds shy of a first-ever Paralympics podium in Beijing.

For Kubacka, a five-time Paralympian, his fourth-place result marked his best-ever finish in a Games. “I am more disappointed than happy because fourth place is not very, very good for us, because we wanted a medal,” said Kubacka, who lost his sight at age 9 when a spray can exploded in his face while at a barbecue. “So we are not very, very happy. We’re (only) satisfied.”

“We would still like to have the medal,” said Zatovicova, who was a promising racer in her own right in Slovakia before she switched to guiding at age 14 when the financial burden of ski racing was too much for her family. “That’s our only expectation. There is still something you can change, and you can improve so that you can be better.”

A quick explainer on how vision impaired alpine skiing works

In vision impaired alpine skiing, each athlete competes with a guide. As they traverse down the course, their guide provides verbal instructions, communicated via either headsets or a speaker strapped to the guide’s back.

There are three classification groups: B1, B2 and B3. Because athletes in all three vision impaired classifications (B1, B2, and B3) compete in the same races, their time is factored using a percentage based on their amount of visual acuity. 

Kubacka is the only alpine skier competing in the B1 classification, which is for athletes who are blind or have very low visual acuity. (B1 athletes even compete wearing blacked-out eye goggles to ensure that the playing field is level.) As a result, Kubacka is the only skier at this year’s Winter Paralympics unable to make out any of the “Ice River” or “Rock” courses at Yangqing National Alpine Skiing Center, instead relying entirely on the voice of Zatovicova to guide him down the steep slopes. 

While female guides for male racers is uncommon, it’s become second nature for Zatovicova and Kubacka, who’ve raced together for eight years. While still a young teen, Zatovicova first guided for fellow countryman Miroslav Haraus, a five-time Paralympian who added a sixth career medal to his resume in Beijing with a bronze in the super-G.

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In 2015, Zatovicova stepped in as a substitute for Kubacka’s injured guide, and coaches immediately noticed the chemistry between them. They were urged to continue skiing together, although it required several adjustments on Zatovicova’s part after guiding Haraus, who competes as a B2 classification and can see some light and shapes.

“When I guided Miroslav, I only needed a bluetooth speaker and he needed to know only a few commands, but with Marek, we don’t use bluetooth, we use a loudspeaker, megaphone, which I carry on my back and have it connected to the microphone on my helmet,” she explains. “The speaker is loud and I speak into it all the time so that Marek can follow me. It’s like I’m drawing a line for him with the voice. Marek doesn’t have anything in his ears, he only listens to my voice.”

Zatovicova said she tried skiing with a blindfold once to recreate Kubacka’s experience, but even though she attempted the experiment on flat slope, it left her shaken up.

“I borrowed his goggles and the guide he had before me was guiding me, but I could not make a turn. I was really afraid,” she said in 2020. “He said, ‘Just follow my voice,’ and I heard his voice all around me. I was afraid. I did not feel comfortable when I cannot see, so I admire [Marek] very, very much.”

Maria Zatovicova (left) guides Slovakian alpine skier Marek Kubacka in the men's giant slalom vision impaired event at the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics.
YANQING, CHINA – Maria Zatovicova (left) guides Slovakian alpine skier Marek Kubacka in the men’s giant slalom vision impaired event at the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Aside from giving instructions through the voice box on her back, Zatovicova makes sure she and Kubacka are always within a gate of each other when racing and she regularly turns around to check his proximity. Off the slopes, the pair also stick together, as Kubacka relies on Zatovicova for guidance for some daily activities.

“I got used to it, but at first I was very tired,” she admitted. “Not physically, but mentally tired because I had to be with him all the time, every day, but now it is fine. We talk to each other a lot, and I tell him everything and he tells me everything. There is a trust between us which is very important for him.”

Both agree that gender doesn’t factor into the relationship, with the most important connection being trust.

“I don’t think that there is a difference between male or female guides because the most important thing is the cooperation between each other,” said Kubacka. “I would say that not gender but the character of the guide and a racer is very important.

“When there are two same or similar character, you can build trust in a person, which is very important – especially in my handicap, where I need to have 110-percent trust in my guide.”

Jensen and Hodgson expressed similar sentiment regarding their partnership, which is in its third year.

“Amelia is as good or better than all the guides anyway. We get along, so it doesn’t matter – boy or girl – we work really well together,” said Jensen. “We get along like close friends on and off the snow, I think it makes a huge difference to how we ski together – the trust level that we’ve built up as good friends.”

Adds Hodgson: “I think it’s about how your relationship is mostly, and we ski pretty similarly, too. It doesn’t matter about the gender – it’s about how you ski and how you get on.”

Australian alpine skier Patrick Jensen (right) competes with guide Amelia Hodgson during the men's downhill vision impaired at the 2022 Winter Paralympics.
YANGQING, CHINA – Australian alpine skier Patrick Jensen (right) competes with guide Amelia Hodgson during the men’s downhill vision impaired at the 2022 Winter Paralympics. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While Hodgson admits to being “bossy” while the two are on skis, it’s a quality that Jensen appreciates.

“Amelia is not easy to scare away – she gives as good as she gets,” said Jensen, adding: “We’ve done three years together now and I guess Amelia is enjoying it as much as I am, so that’s what made the difference.”

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.