Swiss paralympians aiming high

Paralympic cross-country athletes train at Soldier Hollow Keystone

Switzerland's top disabled athletes will be bidding to match the achievements of their able-bodied counterparts this week, as the Winter Paralympics get underway in Salt Lake City.

This content was published on March 6, 2002 minutes

Eleven days after the close of the 19th Winter Olympics, the Rice-Eccles stadium is on Thursday set to stage the opening ceremony for the eighth Winter Paralympics.

Some 1,200 athletes from 36 nations will be competing at the ten-day event, including 18 sportsmen and women from Switzerland.

Eleven medal target

Having seen Switzerland's able-bodied stars collect a total of 11 Olympic medals last month, Swiss Paralympic spokesman Markus Mehr says his squad have no intention of being outdone.

"Our aim is also to win 11 medals," Mehr told swissinfo. "But we have seen a number of our top athletes retiring since the Paralympic Games in Nagano, so we know it will be difficult to reach our target."

Swiss hopes of matching the able-bodied medal haul will be helped by the fact that the Paralympic Games involve more than double the amount of medals available at the Winter Olympics. Although there are just three different types of sport at the Paralympics, all three are divided up into several categories relating to the different natures of disability.

In alpine skiing, for example, athletes are first divided into those who ski standing up, those who sit on specially constructed monoskis and skiers who are visually impaired.

These categories are then further sub-divided based on the degree and type of disability.

Much expected of alpine skiers

With no team entered in the ice sledge hockey and few medal hopes in the nordic disciplines, Switzerland's Paralympic fortunes are likely to depend mainly on the success of the alpine skiers.

Between them, Switzerland's 11 alpine skiers have already won 31 medals at previous Paralympics. Team veterans Rolf Heinzmann and Hans Burn have won no less than 20 of those medals. Burn, who is set to carry the Swiss flag at Thursday's opening ceremony, has so far collected 11 medals, eight of them gold, while Heinzmann boasts an incredible eight golds and one silver.

"Heinzmann and Burn should certainly be up for some more medals in Salt Lake," Mehr told swissinfo. "But with just 18 athletes at the Games, the Swiss team as a whole are going to have to work very hard. It's true that the athletes still want to have fun at the Paralympics, but the priority is to get good results."

Impressive atmosphere

Although the competition is not yet underway, Mehr says that the Swiss athletes have already been impressed by the atmosphere in Salt Lake City.

"It's just amazing," he insists. "We didn't know whether the people here would have got tired of the Olympics by now but no way! Everyone's been really friendly and the facilities for disabled people and the number of parking spaces are a long way ahead of what we have in Switzerland."

by Mark Ledsom

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