April 10, 2009
Park City’s Stephani Victor should have known what the legendary Stein Eriksen already did.
That day, the Deer Valley ambassador spoke prophetically of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team sit-skier’s impending success at the International Paralympic Committee’s World Championships in Korea in February. Then, just a few weeks later, Victor was literally on top of the world as she won three of five possible gold medals at the event.
Victor, who became an adaptive skier after losing half of both legs in a freak accident, had won the chance to ski with Eriksen in an auction at the annual Jan’s Winter Welcome event in October. She used her time with him on the slopes to discuss his success in world competitions in hopes she could channel some of that winning energy. It seemed to work.
Things were not looking so rosy for Victor just before the World Championships. She and her husband, Marcel Kuonen, who acts as her "everything coach," helping with everything from coaching to ski tuning, had planned to head to Korea a few days early to test some new equipment. But the day before she left, Victor developed a bad cough and decided to stop at the doctor’s office before leaving the country. The cough turned out to be walking pneumonia.
"I use a wheelchair, so walking pneumonia seemed like a joke," Victor said.
It was no joke. Victor endured a grueling day-long flight wearing a mask to keep from getting sicker and then spent the next week in her hotel bed with anti-doping-approved medication just hoping to recover before the start of the event.
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"It was like something out of a movie," Victor said.
Kuonen did his best to prepare without her, testing her one ski and videotaping the course. And by the first day of competition, it looked like Victor, although still somewhat ill, could make a serious run at winning. The Korean resort, which was covered almost entirely in man-made snow, proved to be a bit of a challenge for most of the field, but Kuonen had managed to prepare Victor’s equipment perfectly.
"I clicked well with the snow," she said. "Marcel’s conditioning was spot-on with the snow."
The day of the slalom event, which kicked of the World Championships, was blizzardy and cold. Victor’s first run was not her best, so sitting in the starting gate before the second run, she told herself to give it everything.
"I was going for broke," she said. "I attacked from top to bottom."
Her efforts paid off and she won her first gold.
"It was an amazing victory after everything I had gone through," Victor said.
Next up was the giant slalom, an event in which Victor took the overall World Cup globe in 2007. In order to do well at the World Championships, Victor sat down with coaches last spring to plan a training program that would have her peaking at the event. All her training and hard work had already shown in the slalom, but she was really excited to see how she would fare in the giant slalom. In stark contrast to the day before, the race was held in under sunny skies and perfect conditions.
"In slalom I felt like a boxer going 12 rounds to win," Victor said. "GS day was a godsend."
Victor won by a comfortable margin.
"I felt like I had the best runs of my life," she said. "So many coaches came up to us and said congrats and said that was some of the most beautiful skiing they had ever seen. That was as good as the win."
That night Victor and Kuonen each had a gold medal to put on their hotel nightstand and looked forward to the next event the super combined, which involves both super G and slalom.
Victor admitted that the super combined has not always been her strongest event, but she figured, with the winning streak she was on, that her chances might be good. She figured she would ski just well enough in the super G to get into the field and then make up any difference in the slalom her stronger event.
The day of the race, the weather was beautiful. Victor decided to ski hard in the super G, and won.
"When first place came over the loudspeaker, I couldn’t believe it," she said.
Skiing well in the slalom portion was no problem and Victor picked up a shocking third gold medal.
"I thought ‘Wow, how awesome is that? I have a third medal to put on my nightstand,’" she said.
Next up was the super G, with a tighter and more technical course then in the super combined. Victor skied her best, but ended up with silver, losing by just two-tenths of a second.
"I was happy," she said. "It’s a fantasy to think you can win every day."
Then came the downhill — the final race of the World Championships. The snow conditions had become pretty bad and Victor was worried about what might happen. Midway through the race she flew the wrong way off of a jump and went cascading backwards into the gate. With bruises and bumps all over her body, Victor was carried off on a stretcher just hoping, that she hadn’t broken her hand or suffered a concussion. Victor said she was in a lot of pain, but nothing she couldn’t handle.
"I guess losing my legs is my pain barometer," she said.
She had been wearing a helmet, goggles and a back protector during the crash and was convinced they saved her from a worse fate. And despite the bad, finish, Victor couldn’t help but focus on her amazing accomplishments at the World Championships.
"You really have to go through the flow," she said. "Everything in the first three races just flowed weather, conditioning, tuning, everything. Not everyone gets that gift. I will never forget that."
Winning in the World Championships was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment for Victor. Due to venue problems, the once-every-four-year event had actually not been held for five years and as Victor prepares to finish her career in the next few years, she will likely not be around for the next.
Unfortunately, Victor didn’t have much time to savor her victories as the U.S. Adaptive Team headed straight for a World Cup in Whistler — the one and only testing event on the Olympic course — the very next weekend.
"We didn’t get a day off," she said. "The first day there we were racing. It was a total blur."
The very jet-lagged Victor muddled her way through the event, trying to learn the course in preparation for next year despite bumps, bruises and exhaustion. Victor had been in the running for the overall globe in the super G, but another crash in Whistler knocked her out of the running. In giant slalom she finished off of the podium, but then tried to finish on a high note in the slalom and took third.
"I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows," she said. "I didn’t have anything left in the tank."
Still, Victor said she had time to soak up the flavor of next year’s Olympic site. She fell in love with the Olympic Village and the entire atmosphere of Whistler, but also realizes how difficult grabbing gold there next year will be. The Olympic course has an ever-changing and challenging course and, with the Games set in their homeland, the Canadian team is well financed and well-prepared to stage a very difficult challenge next year.
"You feel the rah,-rah," she said. "All the credit to them. They are skiing outstanding."
Victor wrapped up the season last week in Colorado with U.S. Nationals. She won the slalom event there and took second in the giant slalom and combined.
"I wanted a sweep," she said. "But to ask for winning every race sure is a lot to ask."
After a U.S. Ski Team function this weekend, Victor will finally get a little break. She plans to do a little relaxing in the next few weeks before starting preparations and conditioning for the Olympic season ahead.
Although her body is in dire need of a break, Victor admitted that she sneaked away to the slopes a few times last week. Serendipitously, she ran into Eriksen again and joined him for another run. Once again, he said something to share with her.
"Steph," he said. "I knew it. I knew you would win."
"All in all, it’s been an absolutely great season," Victor agreed.