Steamboat athletes head to South Korea for 2018 Winter Paralympic Games
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With a little more than a month left before the start of the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games, two Steamboat Springs athletes are busy preparing for a trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“This would be my first one,” ski racer Allison Kunkel said. “Obviously, I want to do well, but I’m just super excited to go and get the experience for the next Paralympic Games.”
Kunkel, who competes in slalom, giant slalom and super-G, said if she is named to the team she will not be feeling any pressure to bring home any medals — this year. She wants to make the most of the experience and learn what it takes to strike gold when she is a bit older.
“I’m not sure what this year is going to be like,” the 16-year-old Steamboat Springs junior said. “But I hope that I can gain some experience and then go again in 2022 — hopefully, I can win some gold medals.”
The team will not be announced until Feb 20, but Kunkel’s name is currently near the top of a short list of athletes who are expected to represent the U.S. at the Paralympics, which will take place March 9 to 18.
If Kunkel is named to the team she will become the first Paralympic athlete that calls Steamboat Springs home.
Kunkel’s classmate Kyle Taulman, however, is also closing in on achieving that same goal. He is not in the running this time around but has been invited to travel to South Korea for the games, where he will act as an ambassador.
Taulman, who competes in a sit-ski, is also hoping to gain experience at the event, so that he is better prepared to follow in Kunkel’s footsteps in 2022 when the Games are scheduled to be held in Beijing, China.
Being an ambassador is an honor that goes to up-and-coming athletes who can benefit from being a part of the event.
Taulman said he isn’t ready this time around, but he travels to Winter Park once a week where he is working with top-level adaptive coaches who are teaching him the skills he needs to earn the points to be on the 2022 U.S. Winter Paralympic Ski Team.
Taulman was diagnosed with Stage 3 Neuroblastoma at the age of 2. The tumor wrapped around his spine and caused a spinal cord injury, but he hasn’t let it slow him down.
Taulman started skiing at the age of 3 and developed locally as a member of the STARS Development Race Team in 2014 and 2015 where he fell in love with ski racing.
“I love to ski race,” Taulman said. “It’s always been a goal of mine to go to the Paralympics, so I’m excited to go there and see what it is all about.”
Taulman will have an opportunity to ski while he is in Pyeongchang, as well as take part in ceremonial events and attend functions where he will represent the U.S.
As a member of the National Sports Center for the Disabled’s competitive ski program, Taulman is comfortable on the slopes, but the Steamboat Springs High School sophomore is also involved in other activities.
He’s a regular in high school musicals and is a very talented singer. He was spotlighted at the Cowboy Downhill earlier this month when he sang the National Anthem in front of a huge crowd at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. He was also a competitive swimmer before switching his focus to ski racing a few years ago.
Kunkel, a junior at Steamboat Springs High School, started skiing when she was 3, started racing when she was 7 and moved to Steamboat from Chicago with her family a couple of years ago so that she would be closer to the slopes and to the training she needs to be one of American’s top Paralympic ski racers.
She also travels to Winter Park to train, and it’s normal for her to travel to adaptive camps across the country.
“I grew up skiing at Willmot Mountain,” Kunkel said. “It was about 900 vertical feet.”
Kunkel, who suffers a below-the-elbow impairment, is an up-and-coming athlete in the National Sports Center for the Disabled competition program.
She got involved with the program while competing at a junior national championship race in Winter Park three years ago. That’s where she met Erik Petersen, BSCD’s competition director, who encouraged her to give adaptive skiing a try.
“I switched over to the Paralympic work, and I fell in love with it,” Kunkel said. “I think it is more interesting and fun … I just have never looked back since I switched over.”
There will be two more qualifying races this year including a World Para Alpine Skiing event in Park City, Utah, this weekend, and a World Cup event in Kimberley, Canada Feb. 8 to 11. The team will be named a few days after that event.
“I have heard so many stories about the Paralympics,” Kunkel said. “I think it would be really amazing to be there no matter how I do in the races.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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A big blizzard, which covered the Colorado high country with snow on Friday, impacted travel into the early morning hours on Saturday.