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).
MORE WINTER PARALYMPICS COVERAGE: In sled hockey, coed in name only, women are building their own Paralympic pipeline
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.
MORE ON VISION IMPAIRED ALPINE SKIING: Aigner siblings haul in the medals in Beijing
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.”
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.”
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.