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Mitchell Gourley knows that a Winter Paralympic Games must just be about to begin. It is the time when there is a slight change in the dynamics within the tight-knit skiing community. The easy-going natures that create a supportive community for four years suddenly become a bit terser, more brittle.
The Australian alpine skier, who is one of the country’s best medal chances in Sochi for his pet event, the giant slalom, did not have an easy time of it on the slopes of the Rosa Khutor resort during the first two downhill practice sessions of the week.
Gourley was scathing of the slushy, soft ice after the first session on Wednesday, labelling it as borderline unsafe, and while he was pleased that conditions had improved on Thursday, he was unhappy with his performance.
As he sets himself for the opening race of the alpine skiing competition, the downhill, on Saturday, Gourley revealed that he was also not happy with some of the off-field byplay.
The 22-year-old from Barwon Heads accepts that such behaviour was all part of the game within a competitive environment, but believes some of it has gone too far.
”The nature of the sport is such that everyone needs favours at certain times. You’ve got to keep everyone happy and make sure that you’re friends with everyone,” Gourley said.
”But it gets a little bit icier towards the Games time, like this.
”Sometimes people who were very helpful in the four years before are all of a sudden very coy and don’t really want to do much but it is what it is, certain people deal with things differently.”
”For the most part everyone is pretty genuine and don’t do too much untoward. There’s a couple of individuals, a couple of nations, that probably play it up a bit more than the others.”
Gourley, who has limb deficiency below his left elbow and competes in the standing classification, has been one of Australia’s most consistent performers on the World Cup circuit and will compete in all the alpine disciplines.
The conditions caused particular heartache for the skiers during the first downhill training session when newly appointed flag-bearer Cameron Rahles-Rahbula crashed heavily and injured his knee.
Rahles-Rahbula, who is a single-leg skier, has withdrawn from weekend events and he will be assessed in coming days before a decision is made on his remaining races.
Also beginning their campaigns on Saturday will be Toby Kane, one of the few one-legged skiers in the field who does not use a prosthetic when racing, and Melissa Perrine, who is among the gold medal contenders in the vision-impaired classification. Fellow alpine skiers Tori Pendergast (sitting) and Jess Gallagher will begin their campaigns next week.
Alpine skiing assistant coach Michael Milton, who won six gold medals in four Winter Paralympic Games, said the squad was stronger than the one that won four medals at Vancouver in 2010 and he was confident it would add to Australia’s tally of 28 medals.
”I think they’re all very strong athletes,” Milton said.
”They’re a great group of people and considering we’re at the Paralympic games and the pressure is on, they’re a very relaxed and confident group.”