It was a thrilling end to the 2019 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships on Sunday with two teenage stars leading the way in the long distance cross-country events.
Taiki Kawayoke of Japan and Norway’s Vilde Nilsen rounded off the event with stunning performances to take gold.
Kawayoke surprised everyone in the 20km men’s standing race. The 18-year-old finished ninth in the event at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympics but stormed through the field to win his debut world title in Prince George.
The Japanese skier does not use ski poles after being born without some of his fingers, and therefore used his powerful legs to get an early lead.
Kawyoke held off the hard-charging Canadian Mark Arendz who took silver. Arendz won six medals in all at the championships – gold was the only medal that eluded him in Prince George.
In a show of true sportsmanship, Arendz helped Kawayoke unclip his skis as the teenager flopped onto the snow at the finish line trying to catch his breath.
“I was incredibly impressed with Taiki’s race today. He’s a fighter. He’s young and up and coming. We are all going to have to work a little harder now if we want to beat Taiki in the future,” admitted Arendz.
Grygorii Vovchynskyi of Ukraine squeaked into the bronze medal position.
Nilsen demonstrated she is the new powerhouse in women’s cross-country skiing in Prince George, winning her third individual world title of Prince George 2019.
“I think this week has been one of the best weeks of my life,” the 18-year-old said.
Another 18-year-old, Natalie Wilkie, who hails from British Columbia, thrilled the fans in her home province by taking the silver.
Wilkie won gold, silver and bronze at the 2018 Winter Paralympics and said she is excited to be among this new crop of young athletes to watch.
“I think it’s awesome how there are so many people coming into the sport and making it bigger.”
Liudmyla Liashenko of Ukraine won bronze, her seventh medal of the championships.
MEN'S VISION IMPAIRED
Canadian fans had a lot to cheer on the final day as they celebrated another gold medal-winning performance from one of the legends of the sport, Brian McKeever.
McKeever missed the first few days of the championships to attend the Laureus World Sports Awards, where he had been nominated for Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability.
McKeever is a 13-time Paralympic gold medallist and has been the world champion in this event since 2009.
McKeever maintained that winning streak with a blistering run on Sunday, crediting guide Graham Nishikawa for setting the fast pace.
“Graham was amazing today. He just absolutely painted it. It was hard for me to keep up which is good. It makes me work harder.”
McKeever was thrilled to perform in front of his home crowd with Canada hosting the World Championships for the first time.
“It’s wonderful to be here. Prince George has put on quite a show.”
Zebastian Modin of Sweden and guide Emil Joensson narrowly held off Eirik Bye of Norway and guide Arvid Nelson for the silver.
WOMEN'S VISION IMPAIRED
Austria’s Carina Edlinger also defended her world title with a dominant performance from start to finish.
Edlinger and guide Florian Rupert Seiwald also won the women’s sprint event earlier in the championships, a performance made all the more remarkable because she left the course in a wheelchair after her first race.
“It was a miracle to be back after landing in a wheelchair. I’m still not 100 per cent.”
Oksana Shyshkova of Ukraine and guide Vitaliy Kazakov took silver.
Belarus’ Yadviha Skorabahataya and guide Mikalai Shablouski won bronze.
The final day of Prince George 2019 got off to a delayed start after sub-zero temperatures led to the sitting races being postponed by an hour.
But when they finally did get underway it was the same old story for USA’s Oksana Masters, who claimed her fifth gold of the championships.
Masters used her tremendous arm strength to power her way around the course in a race that is a true test for the sit skiers.
She even spent a good deal of the race yesterday skiing beside the eventual winner of the men’s sit ski competition.
“To be keeping up with the guys and especially the winner, it was kind of cool.” Masters said, adding, “this week has just been totally unexpected.”
Masters’ teammate Kendall Gretsch, the Paralympic champion in this event from 2018, took silver. Birgit Skarstein of Norway was third and could not wipe the smile off her face.
Skarstein was especially motivated by her teammates’ thrilling win in the relay on Saturday.
“I definitely got inspiration from the gold medal yesterday. There’s such a great spirit in the team now. Everyone was just so overwhelmed with the gold. It’s a great team to be part of.”
Martin Fleig of Germany started raising his arms to celebrate with some of volunteers on the course several metres before he even crossed the finish line.
Fleig took control of the men’s sitting race early on and sped around the course proving to be too powerful for the rest of the field. It was his fourth medal in Prince George after struggling in his first race.
“Of course, the four medals I’ve won here are very special for me. I will remember them all my life.”
Taras Rad of Ukraine, who dominated all three biathlon events finished with silver, while Dzmitry Loban of Belarus made a push at the end to win bronze.
Full results and highlights from all seven days of the Worlds can be found on the Prince George 2019 website. https://www.paralympic.org/prince-george-2019