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Parallel Pairs

[click to enlarge]

The more
accomplished racers treat
the gates
as a mere
if not with

[click to enlarge]

Story by Randy H. Milgrom
Audio by Bob Merion and Peter Ottlakan
Photography by Bob Garypie and Peter Ottlakan

To the Top

Nendaz snuggles right up to the base of the mountainous peak where this week’s slalom events take place. To reach the downhill race venues, village dwellers are treated to a vigorous walk up a gently rising slope to the tram station, where they are whisked up the mountainside in a roomy, glass-enclosed cable car. It’s a slow ride along a gentle rise – an improbably casual lift that floats higher and higher above the stunning landscape of the Bernese and Vaud Alps. Though on some days it may begin its rise from a foggy Nendaz into an uncertain mist, the cable car unfailingly bursts through the haze and into a blindingly blue sky at the top.

Two at a Time

This morning’s parallel slalom is the culminating event – it’s not only the last alpine race of the week, but it also brings all participants together in one final competition. Age categories, strictly adhered to all week long, are ignored for this last free-for-all, and all willing skiers are pitted against one another – two by two – for one last quick wiggle down the slope.

Two runs – one outfitted with blue gates and the other with red – are placed side by side, in surprisingly close proximity, and two skiers are directed to simultaneously propel themselves toward the bottom of the slope. Seedings for first round match-ups are based on participants’ recorded times for yesterday’s slalom event, which was also held on the course being used for today’s parallel slalom. Victorious skiers advance in a “lose and you’re out” format.

Two skiers ski calmly along a ridge and into the starting blocks. Almost immediately, they’re off at the sound of a piercing electronic bell – popping up out of a crouch and down the steep incline with a stabbing thrust of their poles.

It’s a short course – eight gates in all – and it’s very quick. The more accomplished racers treat the gates as a mere annoyance, if not with disdain. These impressive athletes proceed down the hill as if the markers weren’t there at all – barely glancing in their direction, brushing past them without a thought. Though a slightly exaggerated bend of the knees can occasionally be detected, that is all that seems to be required to send a skier around one bend and down toward the next.

Beat Gottschalck, kidney recipient and technical director of the Games, lasted into the final round of eight, but he took his ouster in stride. “If they hadn’t divided the age groups, I might have had a chance,” he joked. “But I’m too old.”

An Upcoming Duo

Great Britain’s Mark Brown competed in each of the alpine events this week, and he started strong before losing in his final pairing of the morning by a slim .28 seconds. Despite the heartbreaking loss, Mark seemed oddly serene and willing to talk about it just minutes following his ouster.

Mark was born nearly 34 years ago with Alport’s Syndrome, a hereditary disease, so he knew since he was a child that, “my kidneys were slowly deteriorating.” At the age of 27, he began dialysis treatments, and after 20 months he received a transplanted kidney. This May, he’s taking a year off to travel around the world with his girlfriend, Joanne Green. (“I know,” he agreed, “we make a colorful couple.”)

“I couldn’t do it before my transplant, so I may as well do it now,” he says – not so much to the person he’s talking to, or even to himself, but rather, it seems, to just anybody who wants to know it.

Or maybe he’s talking to his younger brother, James, who is not here at these Games, but who has inherited the same disease. James started dialysis in August and is waiting for a donor kidney. Mark hopes to bring his brother to the next Transplant Games as a participant.

They’ll make a wonderful pair.