Visually impaired downhill skier happy to move on from Sochi woes
PyeongChang: It’s hard to ponder a more important relationship in any sporting contest or outdoor pursuit. Perhaps climbing partners high up somewhere in the Himalayas, relying on each other to safely secure ropes and harnesses, edges it out for co-dependency.
Make no mistake, the bond between a visually impaired downhill skier – someone who races down snow-covered mountainsides at speeds in the range of 100km/h – and their sighted guide is unique.
For one of Australia’s leading medal chances at the Winter Paralympics in South Korea, Melissa Perrine, she now has the added benefit that her guide is now also her long-term coach.
Perrine, 30, a three-time Paralympian striving for her first medal, will be aided by Christian Geiger, a one-time Australian Olympic prospect who partnered Jessica Gallagher to bronze in the women’s giant slalom visually impaired event in Sochi.
Perrine has a full book of events in PyeongChang – downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined – and with Geiger only metres ahead of her delivering vital snippets of information via wireless headsets, she is making no secret of her desire for a medal.
Her form line is strong. Perrine – who has cataracts, microphthalmia, nystagmus and glaucoma – has claimed medals in all four of her previous World Cup competitions and is ranked top-five in three events.
“I’d love to achieve podiums and I feel that if [Christian] and I can put together solid runs then that is most definitely achievable,” Perrine says.
“[I’m] definitely eyeing those off and it is really hard to win medals, especially with the classification and they way it is right now.
“[But] there are so many top girls in my division. We’ve got girls from Great Britain, Germany, Slovakia, Belgium. There’s about, gosh, more than a handful of us that can win a medal on any day.
“It’s ski racing, so it’s completely unpredictable. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Perrine knows better that most the unpredictable nature of alpine skiing after a string of dramatic and forgettable moments in Sochi.
After narrowing missing the podium in the downhill, she was in a medal-winning position in the super-G before losing control and recording a DNF.
Then she was disqualified in the super combined for attaching a visor to her race helmet. Finally, a ski came loose in the slalom and giant slalom, drawing to an end a cursed Russian experience.
Perrine says she’s not burdened by her Sochi woes.
“Everything that could go wrong basically did go wrong basically,” she says.
“Poor equipment choice made by myself, my guide and my coaches led to a disqualification when I was in a medal position, which was unfortunate.
“A couple of ski mishaps, a couple of disqualifications – basically it was just not a good time.
“Sometimes it sits in the back of your mind but you do try and find a way to move on. You have to.”
Geiger, 29, is the women’s coach of the Australian Para-alpine ski team and both he and Perrine hope the new dynamic of his dual role will pay dividends.
“He’s a good influence – for the most part,” Perrine says with a chuckle.
“We do [know each other inside out],” she says. “We know each other really well.
“It [the guiding] adds an extra dimension. He gets to experience it rather than just watch it.”
Geiger himself is a fan of the new relationship. “We have a lot of fun, and we get a lot of help as well so someone can film the runs and I can see them afterwards at the bottom of the run and analyse them from there,” he says.
“That’s really interesting for me from what I can feel skiing wise, but then see it immediately and be able to adjust.”
With years on the slopes behind him, Geiger was an accomplished downhill skier on track to represent Australia at the Olympics before a car crash in 2009 turned his life upside down.
He suffered severe brain trauma and injuries to his left arm, spleen and liver. After intensive rehabilitation, it was more than a year before Geiger was able to return to the slopes.
In the years after his accident he was invited to be Gallagher’s guide it proved to be a successful combination in Sochi.
“I’ve skied most of my life and used to ski in the Australian national team. Then unfortunately I got injured in a car accident,” Geiger said.
“It was a blessing in disguise because I have a lot more fun now and enjoy it a lot more.
“I love sports in general, but skiing is something special. You’ve got a freedom that you don’t have in a lot of other sports.”
The car accident that almost claimed his life ultimately didn’t take away one of the most important parts of his life: the joy of hitting the slopes.