With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to outstanding Para-Nordic skiers on the international circuit.
Oksana Masters, U.S. Paralympics Nordic
Undefeated in this category for the last four years of the FasterSkier awards, Oksana Masters had her best Paralympics yet this winter and overcame a major setback to do so. Just two weeks before the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Masters slipped on ice, injured her elbow and had to get surgery. Then, entirely propelled by her arms as a sit skier, the 28 year old competed in all six individual races in PyeongChang and medaled in five of them (she fell in the other and pulled out of the race shortly before the finish). In total, she racked up the first two Paralympic gold medals of her career (in her third Paralympics) plus two silver medals in biathlon — her first biathlon medals — and a bronze.
“I am absolutely truly speechless on this performance,” Masters told U.S. Paralympics after winning her second gold medal of the week in the women’s 5-kilometer sitting cross-country race (her first came in the cross-country sprint).
“I thrive and love the athlete lifestyle of eat, sleep and train,” she continued. “To put yourself to the ultimate test on that start line and seeing all your hard work come through, and not just that, it’s a whole team effort. … It’s not a one-person show. It definitely takes a village and we have an incredible team.”
Masters and her teammate Dan Cnossen accounted for 11 of Team USA’s 16 medals in nordic and biathlon in PyeongChang, which was more than five times the amount of medals the team brought home after Sochi in 2014.
Overall this season in the World Para Nordic Skiing rankings, Masters ranked first in women’s sitting biathlon and tied Germany’s Andrea Eskau for first in cross-country. In the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) overall World Cup standings, Masters placed third in both cross-country and biathlon.
Brian McKeever, Canadian Para-Nordic Skiing
Also our award winner last year, Brian McKeever became Canada’s most decorated Winter Paralympian of all time this winter with 17 career medals, 13 of which are gold. Three of those golds came in PyeongChang, and he captured bronze there with his teammates on the final day of racing, in the open relay, when Canada placed second in the mixed relay and third in the open relay for its first Paralympic relay medals.
This marked the fifth Paralympics for McKeever, 38, and he was accompanied by two guides, Graham Nishikawa (whom he skied with at the 2014 Sochi Games) and Russell Kennedy (who joined the Canadian Para-Nordic Team this year). Together, they won all three visually impaired cross-country races they competed in: the 20 k freestyle, classic sprint and 10 k classic.
In his first race of the Games, the 20 k distance race, McKeever, who was also Canada’s flag bearer for the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, captured his 14th career medal — the most of any Canadian Winter Paralympian. In fact, he’s the most successful cross-country skier in Paralympic history, according to an IPC press release.
“I wasn’t aware of this record, but it is pretty cool,” McKeever told Cross Country Canada after the 20 k. “I think for me more than anything is this is a testament to our entire program. We’ve had so many great skiers leading the way for me with my brother, Robin, who is now coaching us, and Colette Bourgonje. Now it is awesome for me to be a part of a new generation that has arrived in Mark [Arendz], Colin Cameron, and the young women like Emily [Young], Brittany [Hudak] and Natalie [Wilkie], who are ready to carry the torch. I’m so excited to be around all of them this week and to be there cheering them on.”
Like the U.S., Canada tallied 16 medals between nordic and biathlon at the PyeongChang Paralympics.
In an interview with CBC Sports during the Games, McKeever referred to his team as a “future superpower” in the sport, with every one of his World Cup teammates capturing at least one medal in PyeongChang. “It’s really exciting for me to watch and see something that I’ve been part of growing.”
McKeever was also recently voted IPC Male Athlete of the Month for March. Masters, the IPC’s January Female Athlete of the Month, was nominated again for the Female Athlete of the Month for March. Voting closes April 16.
Honorable Mentions: Mark Arendz (Canadian Para-Nordic) and Dan Cnossen & Kendall Gretsch (U.S. Paralympics)
While McKeever carried the Canadian flag at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, his teammate Mark Arendz was honored with waving it at the Closing Ceremony. In his third Paralympics, the 28-year-old Arendz had his best Games yet, taking a medal in all six events he competed in to make him the most successful Canadian at a single Winter Paralympics.
Arendz captured five individual medals in the men’s standing races in PyeongChang, including his first-career gold in the 15 k biathlon, silver in the 7.5 k biathlon sprint, and bronze in the 12.5 k biathlon, as well as his first Paralympic cross-country medals: bronze in both the sprint and 10 k classic, and silver in the mixed relay. He sat out the only race he didn’t medal in: the long-distance cross-country race.
“I came in here thinking I could get three medals, but to get six is incredible,” Arendz said on the last day of the Games, after his team placed second in the mixed relay for Canada’s first relay medal. “Today’s is a special one. I am happy we got this done, but there is no way I could do another race. I’m done.”
We mentioned Dan Cnossen earlier, but he’s worth mentioning again. Cnossen, 37, opened his second Paralympics with his first career medal at the Games — gold in the men’s 7.5 k sitting sprint. The next day, he placed second in the 12.5 k biathlon race, and from there, he kept up his medal streak through all six individual races. The total medal haul for the former Navy SEAL and current Harvard graduate student was one gold, four silvers, and one bronze.
It wasn’t an easy feat. Cnossen considered pulling out of the last biathlon race — the 12.5 k — in order to compete in the final 10 k cross-country race in PyeongChang.
“I have an excerpt that says it doesn’t matter how you feel today, it doesn’t matter what your background is or where you’re coming from, all that matters is what you can do,” Cnossen told U.S. Paralympics after finishing second in the biathlon race. “I just tried to focus on what I could do today. Not the fact that I didn’t sleep well last night, that doesn’t matter. Just go out there and perform like I know I can.”
In all, Cnossen raced about 60 k over eight days.
“I came into the Games just trying to take it one race at a time and give it my all — each and every race — and not think too far ahead,” Cnossen said after placing second in the 10 k cross-country race the next day for his sixth-straight medal. “Just focus on the here and now, and soak up the moment and be in the present.”
His teammate Kendall Gretsch, a triathlete who recently took up nordic skiing and biathlon, opened her first Paralympics with gold in the women’s 6 k sitting sprint in PyeongChang. Gretsch, who turned 26 earlier this month, also won the 12 k biathlon race the next day.
In an interview with U.S. Paralympics, she described being “unsure” of how she’d stack up in PyeongChang. Days 1 and 2 of racing pretty much settled it.
“I knew that since our last World Cup I had improved a lot, but you never know until you race,” she said after her second-straight gold. “It’s a very humbling experience being able to hear your anthem, puts everything into perspective. Knowing that you’re here not just here for yourself but for your country, it’s amazing.”