All You Need to Know About Winter Paralympic Sorts for Wheelchair Users

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The Winter Paralympic games are almost upon us.

How exciting! Paralympic teams from around the world will be confirmed and entering final preparations in PyeongChang, South Korea. We will certainly be tuning in from the 9th – 18th March to watch the top Winter Paralympian’s of today compete for their Nation.
The International Paralympic Committee have established six disability categories applying to both the Summer and Winter Paralympics. One of the categories is for those who use a wheelchair. This groups athletes with reduced mobility, either a spinal cord injury or another disability which mean they compete using special equipment.
The Paralympics were invented at Stoke Mandeville in 1948 by Sir Ludwig Guttman (read our blog about it!) where, fun fact, there is a WheelAir you can test! However, the first Winter Paralympics didn’t take place until 1976, in Sweden. There are now 6 established sports and about 72 events. 5 of these sports have athletes who use wheelchairs competing. Special rules and regulations apply to Paralympic sports which mean they differ from their Olympic counterparts.

So, let’s find out a bit more about these 5 winter sports. This blog will cover:

  • The rules of the sport
  • Special equipment used in the sport by wheelchair users
  • Some of top wheelchair athletes competing in the sport at this Paralympics
  • How winter sports impact wheelchair users’ temperature control

  • Winter Paralympic Sports: Alpine Skiing

    The Sport

    This exhilarating activity is certainly one for adrenalin junkies! Athletes competing race down slopes at lightning speed, often reaching 100km/h.

    There are several disciplines that exist inside the para-alpine umbrella. These include Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Slalom and Super Combined. These are basically just races of different types – incorporating slightly different rules to test different athletic skills.

    The main aim is simple in all disciplines… get to the bottom the fastest!

    Wheelchair users will compete as part of the sitting classification category (other classifications include standing and blind). Classifications are a factor in all para-sport to insure fair competition between all the athletes. In alpine-skiing, a factoring system is in place to allow athletes of slightly different impairments in the same category compete against each other in the same race!

    Specialised Equipment

    Sit-skis are used by skiers with paraplegia or reduced lower limb use. For alpine-skiing, they use a really cool piece of kit, called a monoski. For this, a moulded seat is attached to a metal frame with a shock absorber spring fastened beneath, acting as suspension over bumps or moguls and meaning the ski is in contact with the snow as much as possible. The feet are often encased in the seat.

    A single ski is attached to the seat via a ‘ski-foot’ – a block shaped like the sole of a boot that sticks into the ski’s binding. Stability on the ski is maximised by ‘outriggers’ – basically crutches/ poles with a small ski on the bottom.

    Monoskis mean para-skiers can ski the landscape in exactly the same way as standing skiers. Almost no terrain is off limits!

    2018 Athletes To Watch

    1994 Lillehammer Winter Games, Australian athlete D.Munk

    Anna Schaffelhuber: 25 Germany

    At the 2014 Winter Paralympics she won five gold medals, becoming only the second athlete ever to win ALL the alpine skiing events! She is currently in the top two for the world rankings in all para-skiing categories. We wonder if she will bring Germany 5 more this year at Pyeongchang?!

    Jesper Pedersen: 18 – Norway

    Starting this season as an underdog, Pedersen now travels to the games as one of the leading medal contenders in the men’s sitting category! Having won a host of medals this season, he certainly stands a chance of snatching some more, despite the highly competitive nature of his category.

    Winter Paralympic Sports: Cross Country Skiing

    The Sport

    As one of the two ‘Nordic Skiing’ disciplines, Para Cross Country skiing is when athletes race long distance over a variety of snow terrains, instead of just pisted downhill slope. It has over 20 events in the Paralympics divided into classic or skate categories.

    Classic Para Cross-Country is when skiers propel themselves in pre-made tracks with their skis parallel. Skate or freestyle skiing is almost like skating, where the skiers have the freedom to move in any way they choose.

    Again, it is divided into three categories – sit-skiers, standing skiers and skiers with visual impairments. Wheelchair users enter the sit-skier category. Sit skiers rely entirely on upper body strength to propel themselves during the event. The event is either individually timed, a race between multiple skiers or a relay. Relays have teams of varying disabilities, each of whom is assigned a handicap according to a ‘Nordic Percentage System.’

    Sit-skiers compete in events from 800m – 12km, which is slightly shorter than for standing skiers.


    Specialised Equipment

    Sit-skis are again used for this event. However, cross country skiers do not use monoskis. Instead, a seat is attached to two skis. Cross-country racing skis are lighter and narrower, with a slight sidecut. They are usually stiffer and have tips that curve less than classical technique skis.

    2018 Athletes To Watch

    Andrea Eskau: 46 – Germany

    Already having taken a gold and a bronze at the Rio Paralympics, Eskau is back for more at the winter Paralympics. She is currently joint first in sitting para-cross-country in the world rankings. She will be defending her middle-distance cross-country title as well as sprint biathlon titles at PyeongChang.

    Maksym Yarovyi: 28 – Ukraine

    Last season, Yarovji won four world titles in cross-country skiing and finished at the top of the World Cup overall rankings. He is now ranked join first in the sitting category of para-cross-country. He is very likely to snatch a few medals at PyeongChang in cross-country as well as Biathalon sprint!

    Winter Paralympic Sports: Biathlon

    The Sport

    This is the second of the ‘Nordic Skiing’ category. Skiers who partake in Cross Country often also compete in the Biathlon. This is because this sport involves cross-country skiing. However, it combines skiing with rifle shooting, testing an athlete’s skill set to the max.

    The cross-country ski track is divided by shooting grounds, where the para-skiers must fire from the prone position.

    Again, Para Biathalon athletes are divided into sitting, standing and visually impaired categories and race with others of their ability. There are 18 events that take place across the Biathlon discipline. The events differ in distances – short, medium and long. The race start is usually staggered by 30 seconds.

    Interestingly, for each missed target in long distance competitions a fixed penalty time is added to the skiing time of the athlete. In short and medium distance, a penalty loop must be skied for each miss.

    The racer with the shortest combined time wins… Tense!

    Special Equipment

    The equipment used is the same as that used by cross country skiers – a seat mounted onto two cross country skis.

    2018 Athletes To Watch

    Anja Wicker: 26 – Germany

    Wicker also dabbles in Para Cross-country skiing, but it is the Biathlon where her talents truly lie. She claimed 2 medals in the last Paralympics and recently was named the overall winner in the World Championships in Finsterau in 2017. Looks like she’s on a winning streak!

    Martin Fleig: 28 – Germany

    Again, Fleig skis in Para Cross-country and Biathlon, but champions the most in Biathlon events. Like Wicker, he also won medals in the World Championships in Finsterau in 2017 and finished top of the Biathlon World Cup overall rankings. 2016-2017 was his best ever season… will it continue?

    Winter Paralympic Sports: Para Ice Hockey

    The Sport

    Unlike the skiing sports, Para Ice Hockey (also known as Ice Sledge Hockey) is exclusively for people with lower limb paralysis or impairment. Two teams of 13 and 2 goalies compete – but only 6 players per team can be on the rink at a time.

    They vie to get a rubber puck into their goal on one side of the rink using wooden sticks. It is fast, physical and action packed. The team with the most goals wins after 3 x 15 minute play periods. If they are at a tie breaker at the end, they go into sudden death until one team scores a goal or a shoot-out is held.

    Specialised Equipment

    Athletes navigating ice require different equipment than athletes navigating snow. A sledge is used instead of skis, allowing players to carve through the ice with definitive control. A seat is connected to a frame of aluminium or steel, with a maximum length of 80cm and height of 20cm. Below the seat there are one or two blades which are 16 – 32cm long. Athletes are strapped tightly into the seats so that they move as one with the blade.

    Athletes are close to the ice and use two wooden sticks to navigate the ice-rink and hit the puck. At one end of the stick is a hooked wooden blade used for handling the puck, similar to the traditional hockey stick. The other end is a metal pick used to propel and manoeuvre the players around the ice. They just need to switch between the ends depending on what they want to do. As in traditional Ice Hockey, players wear protective gear to shield from any blows during this fast-paced Paralympic event.

    2018 Athletes To Watch

    Adam Dixon: 28 – Canada

    Canada are at the top of their game since winning the 2017 World Para Ice Hockey championships in Gangneung, South Korea in 2017. Dixon was a key part of this win, being awarded Best Defenceman in the games. He is known for being able to score from the back-end and create stellar opportunities for his team. It seems very likely team Canada will be on the podium in PyeongChang.

    Declan Farmer: 20 – America

    This young Hockey star received his first gold medal in the 2014 Winter Paralympics and was named Best Forward in the recent World Championships in Gangneung. He has also equalled the team USA record for most goals in a single World Tournament – scoring 6 goals! How many goals will Farmer be scoring at this Paralympics we wonder?!

    Winter Paralympic Sports: Wheelchair Curling

    The Sport

    Again, Wheelchair Curling is exclusive to those who use a wheelchair for their daily mobility. Teams must comprise of both men and women. To excel, players require a keen sense of strategy as well as very accurate aim. 8 stones are thrown across the ice by each team, towards 4 circles indicated on the ice – called the house. The object is to get the stones as close to the centre circle as possible. The team with the closest stone can win as many points as stones that are closer than the opponents closest stone. 8 rounds are played, and the team with the most points win.

    It is played with the same stone as regular curling – however they are thrown from a stationary position from a wheelchair with their wheels locked and their feet on the ice. The main difference between wheelchair curling and traditional curling is that there is no sweeping. This makes delivering the stones much more difficult, so Paralympic curlers have to be even more precise. The sheet ice is treated with wool it in certain areas to create friction for wheelchairs to grip.

    Players can either throw the stone from a sitting position or push it using a long metal pole.

    Specialised Equipment

    The long metal pole is called a ‘delivery stick’. It hooks to the top of the curling stone to allow the players to propel them from their wheelchairs. They range in length but all have a bracket at one end which acts as an extension of the players hand.

    2018 Athletes To Watch

    Aileen Neilson: 46 – Britain

    Aileen is the first woman to skip a wheelchair curling team in either the Paralympics or World championships. She only took up the sport at the age of 33 but was immediately a natural. At the last Paralympics, she was a key player in helping the team win a bronze medal. With Aileen’s leadership, the UK have a great shot of bringing home a medal.

    Mark Ideson: 41 – Canada

    He helped secure a gold win at the last Paralympics for his team and is raring to go for a repeat at PyeongChang where he will play lead. He had only played curling for 4 years before he played in the 2014 Paralympics.

    Keeping On Top of Temperature Regulation

    Temperature regulation is a subject close to our hearts here at wheelAIR. It is little known that temperature regulation can be a hugely problematic for many wheelchair users.

    During the Paralympics, it is important for athletes to monitor their body temperature, particularly for those competing with spinal injuries or neurological conditions. Becoming too cold can lead to serious health ailments like hypothermia.

    Temperature regulation can become a particular problem in areas of extreme temperature. With the air temperature often falling far below 0 degrees centigrade in PyeongChang, staying warm is essential when stationary and outside. However, the level of exertion demanded on the body whilst partaking in a Paralympic sport can be extreme and the body will naturally have a heat response to this.

    Therefore, a wheelchair athletes body could quickly alter between extreme heat and extreme cold during the Paralympics. Appropriate measures have to be taken to ensure the athlete’s safety and optimum temperature regarding their apparel and time spent outside.


    So that concludes up our Winter Paralympic round up! Remember to tune in to catch some of these fantastic athletes making history this March. And if you are attending the games as a spectator, wrap up warm.