Photo Caption Braydon Luscombe kicks out of the downhill start and onto the track set by the Canadian coaches. (Photo by Simon Bruty for OIS/IOC)

PYEONGCHANG, KOR (March 9, 2018) — Eleven Canadian para-alpine athletes will rocket down the Jeongseon Paralympic downhill track on Friday, March 9 at speeds topping 100 kilometres per hour. At 41 gates and 2,356 metres long, the course is icy, fast and features a stomach-dropping blind corner that skiers arc through without being able to see what lies ahead. 

The athletes are the stars of the show on Friday, but behind the scenes, the Canadian team’s coaching staff was bestowed with an honour not well known outside the world of ski racing. Head coach Jean-Sébastien Labrie (Plessisville, QC) was selected to set the course for the downhill event — a task considered the coaching equivalent of being on the podium in the most the most prestigious and coveted event in para-alpine skiing.

“It’s a nice honour for me, and for the team,” Labrie said. “Downhill is an event we’re super passionate about, and tend to do well at. Because downhill is really important to us, it means even more to me that I was chosen to set the course.”

Setting a course involves an intricate combination of terrain analysis, precise measurements, and an in-depth knowledge of para-alpine skiing. A healthy dash of intuition rounds out the process. 

At the Jeongseon venue in PyeongChang, the general slope – its pitch and terrain features – is the same for each race that’s run on it, but the placement and number of gates changes for each discipline, as does the course setter. This is what makes each track unique. 

The course setter looks at the slope as a blank canvas, and strategically paints in the gates on paper before drilling them into the snow for race day. 

Typically, the Paralympic host country sets the downhill track, but a combination of logistics meant this year’s downhill set would go to a different country. Labrie’s strong reputation for planning fair courses – he previously set two World Championship tracks and assisted at the Sochi Paralympics – led to his selection.  

“I’m proud of this course. It’s a good mix of speed and skill,” Labrie said. “My main goals were to really showcase our sport well, and to keep in mind the safety of the athletes. It’s a double-edged sword, in a way. You want the track to be fast and exciting, but not at the expense of injuring someone. It’s a fine balance.”

In para-alpine ski racing, course setters must take into consideration the different categories of racers: athletes who compete standing, sitting, and in the visually impaired category. Each category navigates the snow slightly differently, which is factored into the design. 

Sit-skiers, for example, don’t have the benefit of leg muscles that can respond to the terrain and push against turns or absorb shocks to the same degree as standing skiers can. They rely on their sit-skis, which, although impressive, don’t have quite the same touch on snow. It’s tougher to compress and push out of a turn, so the course setter must compensate by placing the gates in a pattern that allows the sit-skiers to maintain momentum without going off-course. 

“They are in some ways at the mercy of their sit-skis, so you have to use the course to send them strategically over breakovers and into turns,” Labrie explained.

By closely analyzing the courses’ potential repercussions for each of the three categories, Labrie was able to create a design that plays to the strengths and weaknesses of each type of racer as equally as possible. 

“I had all three categories in mind, to make sure it’s as fair as it can be,” he said of the challenge. “As a course setter, you can really give an advantage to some disabilities in the way you offset and place the gates. I made sure that the speed and technical aspects of this course are as even as they can be.”

How, exactly, does one approach planning a track at one of the biggest sporting events in the world?

Labrie has known for more than a year that he would be setting the course. He has been researching and preparing ever since. 

He began by travelling to an able-bodied World Cup event on the same slope, where he observed from the sidelines. He watched the race closely and noted how athletes handled different terrain features, and which sections of the mountain generated the most speed or gave skiers trouble. 

Armed with this information, he put pen to paper began brainstorming his own course, playing around with different gate placements and making detailed adjustments. 

Next, he took his course for a trial run at the PyeongChang Para-Alpine World Cup last year, which was a test event for the big show. At the World Cup he recorded the location of each gate with GPS coordinates, to use again at the Paralympics. 

This week, Labrie and fellow coaches Will Marshall (Invermere, BC) and David White (Collingwood, ON) were given the golden keys to the course to drill the downhill gates into the snow for Paralympic race day. They discovered that the hill had changed since last year, so they had to make adjustments. In some sections, the snow had built up significantly, and in others, there was less snow to work with. 

To set the gates, the three coaches spaced themselves evenly apart: Labrie in the middle, with Marshall and White uphill and downhill. Using a rangefinder similar to those used by golfers, they meticulously measured the distance between each gate. Using radios, they relayed instructions to each other: move a little left, angle the gate uphill more, move back. Once satisfied, they used a drill to bite into the snow and place each gate. 

The entire process is a testament to the coaches’ teamwork and communication. 

“I like to hear other coaches’ ideas and get their feedback as we go,” Labrie said. “We have a plan, but we make little adjustments on the way and fine-tune things.”

The PyeongChang track features sections with names like Dragon Ridge, Magic Tree Meadow and Tail of the Dragon. Magic Tree Meadow leads up to Magic Tree, named after a sacred South Korean tree that sits at the edge of the course. The tree is known as a symbol of fertility and is believed to increase the fertility of those who touch its bark. The track was built around it and safety nets stand guard to protect the old tree. 

By race day, the athletes will be as familiar with the course as possible. They’ve completed one of three planned training runs (two were cancelled due to weather). They’ll also have the chance to inspect the course on race day, and have spent hours reviewing and analyzing video of the course. The Canadians are prepared, Labrie said. 

“I know the strength of my athletes and I know that they are ready for this course. It’s going to be super exciting to watch them race it.”


Friday, March 9: 7:30 PM EST - Men's and Women's Downhill

Click here for the full para-alpine Paralympic schedule

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Bib #9 - Mollie Jepsen
Bib #13 - Alana Ramsay
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Bib #19 - Mel Pemble
Bib #20 - Frederique Turgeon

Bib #3 - Mac Marcoux / Jack Leitch
Bib #13 - Alexis Guimond
Bib #14 - Kirk Schornstein
Bib #21 - Braydon Luscbombe
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