Cross-country ski coach Albert Kürner had always thought it a cliché for professional athletes to speak into microphones after success: that they haven’t yet “realized” what they’ve just achieved. On Tuesday of this week he found out how he feels. The president of the St. Peter ski club in the Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald district told him about the gold medal that 18-year-old Leonie Walter had won at the Beijing Paralympics in the biathlon for visually impaired athletes over ten kilometers. So, Kürner needed some time before telling his boss that he was going to take half a day off. The reason: “Today is not a day like any other.”
Kürner, 59, was Leonie Walter’s first trainer. “The biggest man in the St. Peter ski club,” as Walter’s mother Renate put it, which is why Kürner also gave an interview to SWR on Tuesday. They asked him if he was proud, he says. But “pride,” he says, “always smacks of arrogance.” Kürner says, “First of all, I’m happy for Leonie.”
The story of Leonie Walter, who was born visually impaired, began cross-country skiing at the age of seven and was promoted at her local club, is one of many biographies of athletes at the Paralympics ending this weekend. . At the same time, the story is an example of how sport can work for people with disabilities in Germany. And how to deal with a problem that the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS) often points out.
About Walter’s path, they say in the association: “We would like the procedure to be exactly the same”.
The president of DBS, Friedhelm Julius Beucher, has hardly missed an opportunity in recent years to mention that para-sport needs more young people. Otherwise, there will be a lack of role models in the future to motivate people with disabilities to play sports. It is therefore in the interest of the association that two teenagers have achieved much of the German success in Beijing in recent days: as of Friday, 15-year-old Linn Kazmaier and Walter, also benefiting from Russia’s exclusion. They won a total of eight medals. Michael Huhn, the Para Ski-Nordisch junior national coach, says of Walter’s path: “We would like to proceed in exactly the same way.”
Albert Kürner did not have much previous experience in sports for the disabled, at least no “special training” as he puts it when Leonie Walter, who has only a small percentage of sight, came to the St. Peter ski club as a child. The cross-country ski was still working when Kürner ran ahead of her. At some point in the competitions, he himself took a starting number so that people would no longer wonder what he was doing. He sometimes had to interrupt his work with the other kids on the team to run with Leonie. A challenge “in quotes”, he calls it in hindsight.
At some point, Kürner spoke with Michael Huhn, the youth national team coach at the Freiburg base. The conditions there are professional, there is a nearby cross-country ski trail at the Notschrei mountain pass, a large weight room and a roller ski treadmill. Walter has been training there since he was 15 years old. She has been going to boarding school for a year and a half. Her mother says, “We are really very lucky as parents.”
The relevance of these biographies for the association became clear again on Friday: Martin Fleig, 32, announced the end of his career, the flag bearer at the opening ceremony, biathlete and cross-country skier, wheelchair user, medalist 2018 Pyeongchang gold medalist, silver medalist this time. Another athlete less.
The Para-Alpines prepare the umbrella organization the greatest concern
Now more is being done in para-sport to find successors. Positions for coaches are created in the regional associations and so-called talent scouts are employed. The idea comes from North Rhine-Westphalia: One person networks with self-help groups, schools and clubs and makes sure that advertising gets where it’s supposed to go. Also, so that people with disabilities find out about suitable sports offers. Other states followed suit, including Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.
In the Nordic disciplines, says Michael Huhn, the greatest need to catch up is for more athletes to find their way into the national team beyond Freiburg. In recent years, alpine winter sports have caused increased concern in DBS. In 2018, series winner Anna Schaffelhuber was at the Paralympics for the last time and criticized the lack of young talent. There has been a national youth team manager since 2019.
Maike Hujara used to be responsible for Paralympic skiers, then she moved to the German Ski Association. When she returned three years ago in a new position of youth responsibility, she first had to do a lot of legwork. At least that’s what it sounds like when she talks about it.
She organized a three-day sighting at the Kühtai ski area in Tyrol and brought everyone she knew with her. Nine participants the first day and twelve the second. Her first step after that: building a team, organizing races, opening able-bodied races to young people with disabilities. Step two: work with national associations on talent days, find young talent, talk to parents.
His long-term goal is a complete structure from his first ski to the national team. At the 2026 Paralympic Games, the German team should be bigger than this time, it includes a total of six athletes in alpine skiing. The short-term result of the sponsorship is two talents in Beijing: Leander Kress, 21, and Christoph Glötzner, 18, who ride on one leg.
If you ask Glötzner what has changed for him as a result of the junior team, he says: “Things have really progressed, I learned to ski in a completely different way.” Hujara quantifies the difference between funding in the Bavarian state association, which existed before, and that of the national team, with ten training courses instead of three. In other words: 50 instead of twelve days of skiing.
The challenges for Paralympic alpine skiing are great: accessibility in the mountains is often utopian, equipment is expensive. A monoskibob, like the one used by wheelchair user Anna-Lena Forster, the flag bearer at the opening ceremony and Germany’s second gold medalist in Beijing, costs as much as a family car. And skiing with a visual impairment is possibly one of the most fascinating and difficult achievements to imagine at the Paralympic Winter Games. But it works, Hujara says, if you can find guides to lead ahead.
She talks about a talent day in Winterberg, 60 participants were there, the material for it was provided. The ability of a visually impaired skier was so distinctive that she came with her team to train and soon after ran her first race.
Much also depends on the commitment of the families.
Glötzner and Kress didn’t win any medals in Beijing, and in Kress’s case that also had something to do with qualifying: single-legged athletes struggle with their time factor against restricted two-legged competition. Glötzner, on the other hand, was injured before his first planned start in training. Gaining experience was his goal in Beijing.
Like the story of the biathlete Leonie Walter, Glötzner’s is also somewhat exemplary. It is about commitment, in his case it is that of the family, as the coach of the Hujara youth academy underlines. Gloetzner lost her leg in a lawn tractor accident when she was three years old. About six months after the operations, she went down to the Steinberg in the Bavarian Forest on a ski and two crutches.
Meanwhile, Glötzner not only contributes his own skills to the future of Paralympic sport. “An eight-year-old boy with only one leg was a spectator at the Bavarian championships,” he says. “Since then, our families have been in contact. I showed him my ski storage and ski crutches, which you can no longer get.” He bequeathed it to the boy. “So he can train.”