Sidelined for six months with an Achilles tendon injury, Spain’s Jon Santacana Maiztegui returned to top form on Saturday (8 March) by collecting gold in the men’s downhill visually impaired class on the opening day of alpine skiing at the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics. … 

Santacana Maiztegui, guided by Miguel Galindo, clocked a time of 1:21.76 ahead of Slovakia’s Miroslav Haraus (1:22.01) and Canada’s Mac Marcoux (1:23.02) at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Centre to win his second consecutive gold medal in the downhill.

“This is special to me,” said Santacana Maiztegui, the three-time Paralympian who now has a total of three gold medals to his name and five Paralympic medals overall. “I hurt my Achilles tendon in September, so that is why it is special to be here. I trained and worked hard. I went to rehabilitation for eight hours per day. I started training in January and in March, and I am here.”

Six-time world champion Marie Bochet’s Paralympics got off to a fast start on as well. The 20-year-old French skier put herself on a Paralympic podium for the first time in her career by winning the women’s downhill standing class with a time of 1:30.72. Inga Medvedeva of Russia (1:32.19) took silver and USA’s Allison Jones (1:34.09) grabbed bronze.

Bochet – who swept all five events she competed in at the 2013 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain -  was fourth in slalom and super combined at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympics.

“I am very pleased with my performance today,” she said. “I wasn’t very confident after the trainings because I missed a lot of gates. This is why I raised my arms immediately when I crossed the line.”

The men’s downhill sitting result was likely a shock for Japanese fans. Japan’s Akira Kano (1:23.80) edged out Canada’s Josh Dueck (1:24.19) and his fellow countryman Takeshi Suzuki (1:24.75). But Japan’s other big star in the sport, Taiki Morii, failed to finish the course. Morii finished second in the downhill sitting event four years ago in Vancouver.

The men’s downhill sitting class also saw the most crashes on the day. American Tyler Walker was airlifted from the slopes after cartwheeling multiple times and lying motionless before being attended to by the medical team.

In the women’s downhill visually impaired class, Russia’s Aleksandra Frantceva won the first-ever Paralympic medal on home snow for Russia. She won bronze with a time of 1:35.78 behind Great Britain’s Jade Etherington (1:34.28) and Slovakia’s Henrieta Farkasova (1:35.55) – who collected the first alpine gold medal in Sochi.

The women’s downhill sitting event was the slimmest margin of victory on the women’s side, with Germany’s Anna Schaffelhubber taking gold in 1:35.55 and Alana Nichols of the USA (1:35.69) winning silver. Laurie Stephens, also of the USA, won bronze in 1:36.94. The race was one of the most compelling of the day because Nichols was won the event in Vancouver but top-ranked Schaffelhubber sat one slot higher in the rankings than Nichols coming into Sochi.

“It’s awesome,” Schaffelhubber said. “I didn’t expect to do so well. When I was in the finish area, I knew it was going to be close. It is a very high level of performance in Paralympic sport.”

The men’s downhill standing event was won by an even narrower margin. Austria’s Markus Salcher collected gold with a time of 1:24.35 while Alexey Bugaev (1:24.41) was second and France’s Vincent Gauthier-Manuel (1:25.30) was third.

“In training it looked good for me and I was a bit nervous, but I am glad to have won today,” Salcher said. “I’m satisfied.”