Now it’s their turn for gold
Like most of the rest of the country, Truckee residents Jennifer Kelchner and Kevin Bramble watched the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games on television Sunday.But instead of sitting back and reflecting on the recently completed games, Bramble, Kelchner and nearly 500 other elite athletes with a disability are gearing up for their chance to compete for gold, glory and country in the Salt Lake City 2002 Paralympic Winter Games starting March 7.In fact, the 23-year old Kelchner is looking to repeat as the women’s downhill Olympic gold medallist in the Paralympic games.”I’m definitely looking to repeat in the downhill and am also looking to medal in the super G and slalom,” she said on Friday.In addition to her gold in the downhill at the 1998 Nagano Paralympic Games, she took fourth in the super G.For Bramble, these will be his first Paralympics, though he won the men’s downhill at last year’s World Cup race.That victory gave Bramble a shot of confidence and helped to steady his nerves as he seeks the title of Paralympic Downhill Champion.”I’m nervous about the fact that it’s just one run. It’s a lot of pressure for one run on one day,” Bramble said.Since the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics in France, the Paralympics have followed the Olympic games at the same venue.This year they will run from March 7-16 and will feature four sports and athletes from 35 countries.The A&E Channel will air the Paralympics every evening starting March 9. Check local listings for exact time.Events include alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair dance sport.Bramble and Kelchner, who live together, first met at a World Cup race in 1998.Bramble, 29, grew up in New Jersey before moving to South Lake Tahoe in 1992. He broke his back in a snowboarding accident in 1994 and is now in a wheelchair.Kelchner, a native of Cazenovia, N.Y., has been skiing since she was 2 years old.She lost part of her left leg in a riding lawn mower accident when she was 4, but was skiing again a mere three months after the accident.At the Paralympics there are 12 different classes that group skiers according to their disability, with three additional groups for blind participants.”I’m in a combined class. I’m combined with other classes that don’t have enough racers,” Kelchner said.Though thankful that the grouping gives her a chance to compete, Kelchner said she would like to compete against all the athletes.”I would prefer one class,” she said.In addition to different divisions, athletes within a certain class are, depending on the disability, given a time allowance called a factor.Kelchner said officials are still working on correlating the appropriate length of the factor for a given disability. If it is too big, it gives the participant an unfair advantage over others in the division.”It’s a constant struggle to get the factor adjusted,” Kelchner said.Unlike most Olympians, Kelchner and Bramble say they don’t spend copious amounts of their time training. Instead, the two take a more hedonistic approach.”When you are out there training every day, it takes a lot of the fun out of it,” Bramble said. “Free skiing keeps it fun.””But it’s amazing how much free skiing helps,” Kelchner added.While fewer events, time factors and several different divisions within a sport are some of the differences between the Paralympics and the Olympics, one thing is the same in both games D the competitive nature of the participants.”What field there is full of athletes. It doesn’t matter what the game is D you put us all in a basketball game, and we want to win,” Kelchner said.Bramble put it even more directly.”When it comes down to who is the fastest on the race course, disabilities are thrown to the side,” he said.Bramble said the international flavor of the Olympics is also present at the Paralympics.”The Canadians are a really good team and a lot of fun,” he said.When the games are over, Bramble said he will focus his energy on opening his own business, KBG (Kevin Bramble Goods), manufacturing sit-skis and other outdoor equipment.Kelchner is a sophomore at University of Nevada, Reno majoring in marketing with a minor in communications.She said she hopes to combine her education at UNR and experience in the Paralympics to dispel many of the misconceptions and misunderstandings of people with disabilities.Among them, she wants people to know it’s OK to ask questions.”Children often come up to you and want to know about your disability, but the parents are always shying them away. They shouldn’t, children should ask questions,” she said. “It’s more rude to stare and not ask questions.”She said she also plans to work on promoting the games.”A lot of times the Paralympics gets compared to the Special Olympics. They are totally different. In the Special Olympics, anyone can participate, but in the Paralympics, you have to earn a spot on the team,” she pointed out. “And I’ve always had a hard time marketing the Paralympics and disabled skiing and getting sponsors. It’s definitely something I want to get better at.”And while Kelchner plans to retire from competitive skiing after the games, she will continue to maintain an active lifestyle.”The disability didn’t create the athlete. The athlete was always there,” she said.
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While America’s top alpine racer, Mikaela Shiffrin, raced to a pair of second-place finishes at last weekend’s World Cup slalom event in Levi, Finland, things wouldn’t go as well for a trio of Tahoe skiers.