Paralympics turn to reach for the medals

Nilsen, Pedersen, Skarstein are Norwegians to watch

Birgit Skarstein

Photo: Geir Olsen / NTB
Birgit Skarstein on her sit ski during a cross-country race at the World Para Snow Sports Championships in January at Lillehammer, Norway.

Business and Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

The Paralympic Winter Games will take center stage March 4-13 in Beijing, China. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat is the same as for other athletes. 

There are some darn good para athletes. Canada’s Brian McKeever, 42, is the winningest visually impaired cross-country skier with 13 gold medals. Eight are Summer and Winter Olympic participants: Norway’s Birgit Skarstein, 33, who won a rowing gold medal in Tokyo; cross-country skier, biathlete/cyclist Oksana Masters, 32, (United States), who will be participating in her fifth Paralympics; biathlete/cyclist Aaron Pike, 35, (United States), who will be at his sixth Paralympics; snowboarder/track and fielder Daniel Wagner, 28, (Denmark); 400m runner/cross-country skier Danielle Aravich, 25, (United States); biathlete, cross-country skier/triathlete Kendall Gretsch, 29, (United States); cross-country skier/wheelchair racer Merle Menje, 17, (Germany); and alpinist/100m runner Momoka Muraoka, 24, (Japan).


To have fair and equitable competition, the athletes are classified by the body impairment and then by the extent of the disability. “Its purpose is to minimize the impact of impairments on the activity (sport discipline),” according to “Having the impairment thus is not sufficient. The impact on the sport must be proved, and in each Paralympic sport, the criteria of grouping athletes by the degree of activity limitation resulting from the impairment are named ‘Sport Classes’ … Classification is sport-specific because an impairment affects the ability to perform in different sports to a different extent. As a consequence, an athlete may meet the criteria in one sport, but may not meet the criteria in another sport.”

For standing skiers, leg impairments have a LW code with levels 2, 3, 4, while arm impairments are LW with 5/7, and 8; if both arms and legs are affected, the classification is LW9. For sitting skiers, the classes are LW10, 10.5, 11, 11.5 and 12. Vision impairments are B1, 2, and 3. A formula is used to adjust an athlete’s time in a race to a more accurate time. Each athlete is assigned a percentage based on their race class, which is multiplied by the recorded time to get the adjusted time.

Who to watch

Vilde Nilsen

Photo: Geir Olsen / NTB
Vilde Nilsen is a favorite cross-country competitor.

The World Para Snow Sports Championships were Jan. 8-23 in Lillehammer, Norway, providing a pre-Olympic glimpse of the talent. Russia Para Committee (RPC) dominated with 67 medals (22-23-22), 39 more than the United States (28), followed by Ukraine (21), Austria and Belarus (10) and Norway (9). Norway has won 327 medals in the Paralympics, trailing Germany (364) and Austria (332) and right above the United States (313).

Cross-Country Skiing

Vilde Nilsen, 21, earned two gold (1km, 10km), a silver (15km) and a bronze (2.5 km open relay) in Standing LW. She won the 1km (2:46.45) by 11.65 and 70m and the 10km (31:02.4) by 24.8 over American Sydney Peterson, 21. Nilsen is the World Cup leader. Canadians Brittany Hudak, 28, and Natalie Wilkie, 21, are 2-3, Peterson 4th, Ekaterina Rumyantseva, 31, (RPC), and Iuliia Mikheeva, 22,  (RPC) 5-6, Liudmyla Liashenko, 28, (Ukraine) 7th, Aravich (USA) 8th, Oleksandra Kononova, 30, (Ukraine) 9th, and Emily Young, 31, (Canada) 10th. On Jan. 27, Nilsen tested positive for coronavirus before competition at Östersund, Sweden, and was sent home with teammate Indira Milena Hopsdal Liseth, 35, (close contact). There’s enough time for recovery.

Skarstein, who didn’t have a good worlds, is ninth in the cross-country sitting/sitski LW, but she’s a tough competitor and role model. At Pyeonchang, South Korea, she participated in 1.5km sprint classic, 7.5km classic and 15km freestyle. Masters and Gretch are at the top. Masters won two gold (1km, 15km), a silver (6km biathlon) and a bronze (10km biathlon) at Lillehammer. She now has 10 world championships. Remarkably, she tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 31. At the 2018 Paralympics, she won two gold, two silver and one bronze. Gretch won gold in 6km biathlon and 12km cross-country at Pyeongchang. RPC has the third (Marta Zay-nullina, 31), fourth (Natalia Kocherova, 31), sixth (Maria Iovleva, 31), seventh (Irina Gulyayeva, 37) and eighth (Akzhana Abdikarimova, 30) ranked skiers in the category. Valiantsina Shyts, 27, (Belarus) is fifth. Visually impaired Thomas Karbøl Oxaal, 22, is 13th among the VI cross-country skiers, headed by Oleg Ponomarev, 29, (RPC) followed by Jake Adicoff, 26, (USA). All three are B3, the least visual impairment. B2 and B3 can choose to have a guide or not.

Jesper Saltvik

Photo: Geir Olsen / NTB
Jesper Saltvik Pedersen is expected to be a strong contender in the downhill, slalom and Giant Slalom races.


Jesper Saltvik Pedersen, 22, won gold in the downhill (1:12.85), slalom (1:27.61) and Giant Slalom (2:14.42), and silver in the Super-G to Jeroen Kampschreur, 22, (Netherlands) and Super combined to René de Silvestro, 25, (Italy) by 0.18 in men’s sitting/sitski in the worlds. Pedersen, who was born with spina bifida, won gold in Giant Slalom and bronze in Super Combined at Pyeongchang. He tops the World Cup rankings in downhill and slalom, is second in Giant Slalom, Super Combined and Super-G. In downhill, Pedersen is followed by Kurt Oatway, 37, (Canada), and Kampschreur (Netherlands) in third, with the top American Andrew Kurka, 30, who won gold in the downhill and silver in the Super-G at the 2018 Paralympics, in seventh. Pedersen is 1-2 with Kampschreur in Slalom, and that’s reversed in Giant Slalom and Super-G, while Silvestro leads Super Combined. 


Nils-Erik Ulset, 38, and Canada’s Mark Arendz, 31, didn’t reach the podium in biathlon standing at Lillehammer but are long-time rivals and friends. Ulset, who will be participating in his fifth Paralympics, has won 13 Paralympics medals, three gold. Unlike other para skiers who compete in cross-country and biathlon, Ulset has concentrated solely on biathlon. Arendz, in his fourth Paralympics, is a three-time world and Paralympic champion. Arendz is sixth, Ulset ninth in the rankings, which are led by Vladislav Lekomtsev, 27, (RPC).


Jostein Stordahl, 55, Ole Fredrik Syversen, 50, Sissel Løchen, 52, Geir Arne Skogstad, 48, and Mia Larsen Sveberg, 21, are Norway’s curlers, who are ranked second behind China in the World Curling Federation rankings. The United States is 11th. Norway picked up silver at Pyeongchang.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit;