Skiing for Success

Words by  Nick Walker

Taranaki sit-skier Corey Peters has had a few months to reflect on his remarkable double medal performance at the Beijing Winter Paralympics, but he still doesn’t quite know how he did it.

Corey Peters’ mind was all over the place in the lead up to the Winter Paralympics in March. 

Saying he’d had a disrupted build-up doesn’t quite do it justice – two years of almost no competition, including a bout of Covid that ruled him out of the World Championships earlier in the year, left him wondering if he was even good enough.

The 38-year old New Plymouth sit-skier hadn’t even finished a full run of the Beijing downhill course before his gold medal run – he crashed three gates into his first practice run, and again about two-thirds of the way through his only other practice. 

“There were some sleepless nights knowing the hot favourites had finished and led both training runs, and I was DNF (did not finish) both times. I knew I hadn’t done enough training, and I was just thinking to myself, ‘Are you still going to be able to compete with these top guys?’”

Despite that, he somehow managed to find a hard-to-describe mental state that athletes sometimes talk about – being “in flow”. Athletes might stumble upon it only once in their careers if they’re lucky; it’s how they see and react to things in lightning quick time, without even really having to think about it.

“As soon as I went through the start wand and was on course, it was game on, I just went into tunnel vision. Strangely, my run didn’t really feel super-fast, I felt really composed and that I had so much time to see the course and react accordingly. It was a feeling of just being cool, calm and collected.

“A lot of my good results in the past have come when it’s like you’re fighting the course the whole way down. The g-forces we feel are so intense, but this one felt like it almost came easy – it’s really weird to explain.”

Where his mind was packed with doubt the night before the race, it was completely free of any thought on the mountain, while his body was hurtling down hills and around corners at more than 100 kilometres an hour. Because of his training mishaps, Corey hadn’t even skied 

much of the course before, but he was inch-perfect in the middle and latter stages in particular. 

When he regained his senses at the end of the run, he couldn’t quite believe what had happened.

“I knew it was a clean run, but it was a big shock to look at the big screen and see my name at the top, especially 1.3 seconds up. That’s a long time in alpine skiing terms – guys are usually separated by fractions of a second, so to do that just felt surreal.”

Peters crossed the finish line in 1:16.73, well ahead of Norway’s Jesper Pedersen. He had to wait for 20 remaining skiers to race before the result was confirmed, but no-one got closer to his blistering time. 

After winning silver in the Sochi 2014 Games and bronze in PyeongChang in 2018, he finally completed his set with an elusive gold medal.

“It’s just complete satisfaction,” Corey reflects. “We dedicate so much time, effort and hard work into striving for that number one spot and to finally do it was just an awesome sense of accomplishment. 

“The downhill is considered by many as the pinnacle in Alpine Ski Racing; it’s the gnarliest event, purely because of the speeds you get up to. That’s always been one of my biggest goals – to become the world’s fastest man in alpine skiing in the Paralympic world.”

Despite still processing the weight of his success, and being stuck on his phone (admittedly “basking” in the messages he was receiving), Peters then backed it up by winning his second medal of the Games – a silver in the Super G – the very next day. 

“It was such an amazing feeling to get two incredible results in the first two days of competition, I spent the next week beginning to process it all. I had the Giant Slalom a week later, and if I’m completely honest I took my foot off the gas for that. 

“I’d already exceeded my own expectations, and it’s not my strongest event, so it was nice to take the time to relax and enjoy the athlete’s village a little.”

The fact Peters doesn’t dwell so much on his silver medal – a huge achievement in its own right – shows just how much the gold means to him.

A rocky build-up

The last two years have been fairly unkind to a lot of snow sports athletes in this country, and Corey is no exception. He flew home in January 2020 after the world champs were cancelled in the first stages of the Covid pandemic.

It was his first summer in 10 years, not that he was particularly pleased about it. The only perk was a head start on the New Zealand winter, although in 2021, a second national lockdown interrupted a lot of the good snow season.

There was no international competition the whole time he was home until earlier this year. Even training was challenging – the top snow sports athletes essentially need a large part of a whole mountain to work with and it’s more profitable for ski fields to open to the public instead. 

Corey spent a lot of that time studying for his certification as an architectural draftsman, while most of his international competitors were perfecting their skills on the superior facilities in North America and Europe. 

Things finally got back to normal when he and much of the New Zealand team were able to return to their regular training base in Colorado, USA late last year. There were extremely strict Covid protocols, and in four months Corey only went between three places – the team accommodation, the mountain and the supermarket. 

However, on January 1st, just five days before the team was due to fly out to the world champs in Norway – the same event that was cancelled at late notice in 2020 – Corey tested positive.

“I went straight into isolation for five days within my own accommodation to prevent the rest of the team catching it. They flew out and I stayed behind. I was always up against it to test negative in time, and it took 10 days to get over it. 

“By that stage I’d missed the Downhill and Super G, which were my two key events, although I did manage to get there in time to finish 4th in the Giant Slalom.”

After so long away from top flight racing, to get so close to such a pinnacle event – and one that was a key part of the build up to the Winter Paralympics – was gut-wrenching.

“It played on my mind a lot. Just that self-doubt and knowing we hadn’t had enough training, it was tough to deal with. Fortunately I was able to have some time with a sports psychologist to put things into perspective and work through those ruminating negative thought patterns. 

“I had to really rely on my last 11 years of training and competing. I’m one of the older guys, and I felt like the advantage I had over them was experience. There’s certainly more risk and danger involved in those speed events, so experience is often a big factor.”

Discovering skiing

Corey had never even tried sit skiing when he decided to spend $10,000 on the equipment for it. He’d barely done any kind of skiing in fact, and had only gone up the mountain a handful of times with mates. 

It was 2011, two years after he’d injured his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident. A former rep rugby player and a keen surfer and motocross rider, sport has always been a big part of his life.

“I really struggled for a couple of years after the accident with dark times and depressive thoughts…being a massive sporting person and being told by doctors that you’ll probably be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, you really wonder what your life is going to be like from now on.

“I went to a sports expo at TSB Stadium for people living with disabilities. Ian Rowe – who’s now a good friend of mine – was there with a sit ski and he explained how it all works and what’s involved. He said, ‘This is probably the best sport you could get into, not only for the adrenalin it gives you but also the sense of freedom it can offer you.’ I trusted his advice and got a ski imported from the US without even trying it.”

This fortuitous meeting was captured by the local newspaper, and there’s a photo of the pair in an article about Ian looking forward to the Winter Games in Cardrona in a few months time. He was hopeful of performing well, but as it turned out it was Corey (who had never even seen a sit ski before that day) who would win gold.

From his very first time trying the sport, it was clear Corey was a natural.

“I turned up to Whakapapa and within two days I was independently skiing down the mountain. The instructor at the time said he’d never seen someone do that so quickly – having a motocross and surfing background probably helped with balance and coordination.

“It gave me ambition and a new goal to work towards. That’s the key thing that pulled me out of that dark slump. It gave me that focus back again, rather than sitting around home thinking ‘what’s my life going to be like now I’m in a wheelchair?’”

Later that year, he was off to Colorado to train full time. He was on a rapid ascent, and set his sights on the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, where he duly won silver in the giant slalom. Success continued to come, and he was named Snow Sports NZ Overall Athlete of the Year and Adaptive Snow Sports Athlete of the Year in 2015 and 2014. 

Life as a para athlete

Corey agrees there’s something slightly different about para sport compared to able-bodied sport. It’s still about success and celebrating excellence, but it’s also about overcoming challenges and supporting people at the same time.

“Often people faced with adversity use sport as a way to help them overcome what they’ve gone through. That’s what I did, and I feel really fortunate that it’s turned into a career.

“A lot of people see it as inspirational, although I don’t really see it like that. I’m just out there doing what I’d be doing without the accident – it’s just a different sport than what I thought I’d be doing. At the same time, I was inspired by a lot of paralympic skiers when I was learning, so I get it.”

At this point of his career, after such a highlight in Beijing, he looks back on the last 11 years satisfied.

“As shitty as the accident was, it’s enabled me to have a pretty incredible lifestyle. I’ve experienced different cultures, met friends all over the world – it’s just awesome to be able to travel the world and do something you really enjoy doing.” 

As much as he loves it, being a professional athlete in any sport requires dedication and sacrifice. He’s been constantly on the road going from winter to winter; travel, train, compete, repeat.

The irony is, while some might consider Corey disabled, his injury actually enabled him to live his dream. 

“My office is the mountain. That makes it sound glamorous, but there’s a lot of hard work involved. We’re ski training five days a week and in the gym up to five days a week as well. You treat skiing a little differently when it’s your job, compared to someone who does it for a weekend away.”

For now, Corey’s planning on taking some time away from skiing over the next year or so. His partner Karin is expecting their first child in July, and he’ll spend as much time with them as he can. 

He has draftsman work alongside another Taranaki former para snow athlete, Carl Murphy, lined up, though he admits to having an eye on the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games in Italy, when he’ll be 42.

That’ll make Corey one of the older athletes in the field, but the way he has a habit of overcoming challenges, you wouldn’t bet against even more success. 

Career highlights

Beijing Paralympic Winter Games 2022

Gold – Men’s Downhill

Silver – Men’s Super G 

PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games, 2018

Bronze – Men’s Downhill 

World Para Alpine Skiing Cup, 2018

Gold – Men’s Super G

Silver – Giant Slalom

World Championships, 2017

Silver – Men’s Downhill

Silver – Men’s Super G

World Championships, 2015

Gold – Men’s Downhill

Gold – Men’s Super G

Silver – Men’s Giant Slalom

Sochi Paralympic Winter Games, 2014

Silver – Men’s Giant Slalom

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