Snowboarder overcomes fears to reach Paralympics

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Snowboarder overcomes fears to reach Paralympics


Left: Para-snowboarder Park Su-hyeok smiles after finishing his race on Monday. Right: Park slides down the slopes of the Jeongseon Alpine Centre in Gangwon. [JOONGANG ILBO, YONHAP]

Korean para-snowboarder Park Su-hyeok may have finished his race second to last among 22 athletes at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre in Gangwon on Monday, but he was all smiles as he passed the finish line.

The 18-year-old was happy to complete his first event ever at the Paralympics.

“I feel refreshed,” he said. “A lot of people also came to cheer … I’m satisfied I was able to race down faster than I expected and didn’t fall this time.”

The accomplishment was all the more remarkable because when he first started snowboarding, Park was scared of heights.

The first-time Paralympian raced in two qualification runs for the men’s snowboard-cross SB-UL classification event with a best time of 1 minute 22.68 seconds, too high to advance to the final runs. SB-UL athletes have a physical impairment affecting one or both arms, so they compete standing.

Park was born on Aug. 25, 2000, with only the upper part of his right arm. All his life, he has dealt with people’s curiosity about his impairment, and he credits his early education - placed in a school with able-bodied children - for his easygoing confidence. “Do you want to touch my arm?” Park asked a volunteer who came to help him during the competition. “I can do everything with this arm just fine,” he said lifting up some gear with his right arm.

Before snowboarding, Park ran track and field on the recommendation of a social worker at a physical therapy center. In 2015, Noh Sung-gyun, a former para-snowboarding coach, noticed Park at an event and introduced him to snowboarding.

It wasn’t easy at first. Park feared heights and had a difficult time just standing up straight on the board. “Because I never rode [on a snowboard] before, all I felt was fear,” he recalled.

The slopes were daunting, but they gave him a sense of thrill and challenge. “I thought at the time that if I did really well, I could even make it to the national team,” he said. That’s when Park set his sights on the Paralympics.

By his own admission, Park fell about eight out of 10 times when he first started snowboarding. But his skills quickly advanced, and within nine months of starting, Park made it to the national para-snowboard team in September 2016.

Six months later, he placed sixth in the para-snowboard-cross and banked slalom SB-UL events at the U.S. Nationals in Copper Mountain, Colorado. Last year, he competed at a World Cup event in New Zealand and finished 11th in banked slalom.

“I started out knowing nothing,” Park said. “I was scared of doing jumps, but now it’s transformed into confidence.”

Park’s enthusiasm extends to his relationships with other athletes at the Winter Games. He is friends with snowboarder Lee Min-sik, who competed at the big air event in last month’s Olympics. “Because I am the same age as him, I feel comfortable talking to him,” Park said. “We became close last year during off-season training in New Zealand. Sport has no boundaries and allows me to stay close with him. I hope other people with impairments can see that through sport.”

Park will participate in the banked slalom training event on Thursday at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre. His goal for this Paralympics is simply to gain more exposure to the Games.

“I’ve got some good experiences here, so I really hope that I’ll medal in Beijing in four years,” he said.

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