Para elite alpine skier Jesper Saltvik Pedersen had his breakthrough season in 2017/18. The 18-year-old can introduce himself as the Paralympic giant slalom champion, the overall world cup champion, as well as champion of both the giant slalom globe and the super G globe. He also won bronze in the Paralympic super combined.
The Norwegian para elite racer talks about how he got into racing, his impressive training schedule and his ambitions for the future.
Pedersen was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed from his waist down. Growing up, the wheelchair did not stop him from participating in sports though.
“When I was younger I took part in everything my friends did. My local sports association was really good at not finding issues with including someone in a wheelchair,” he said.
He did athletics and played football and handball. His outdoors-loving family often spent the weekends in the mountains and he was introduced to skiing as a toddler.
“My parents let me test sit-ski for the first time when I was two and a half years old. When I was six I spent three weeks at a health sports centre in an alpine resort with my dad and learnt how to race entirely by myself,” he said.
He continued: “There is something about being free from the wheelchair, not having to think or worry about it. Racing from my friends rather than being that guy who is always last.”
In the 2017/18 season Pedersen definitely got used to racing from friends and competition alike. His first ever world cup win was followed closely by six more, and it was an ever so small disappointment when he finished just outside the podium in both the Paralympic downhill and super G races. He finally got his podium finish in the super combined and the cherry on top of his fantastic season was Paralympic gold in his favourite discipline, giant slalom.
“Neither I nor my coaches could have dreamt of how fast I would progress.
“In a way, now is when it starts because it is more difficult starting out defending your position rather than attacking. Next season there is one person everyone wants to beat, and that is me.
That is why he needs to make every effort to improve even more, to ensure that he continues to develop further.
At 11, Saltvik Pedersen was invited to a training session with his local ski racing club, Plogen, and started training regularly with them. He said: “Many racing clubs are apprehensive about taking in skiers with disabilities because they are concerned it will be too much work.
“I find that what I work on is usually the same as my team mates though, so with a few adjustments anything is possible!”
“I think the individual racing clubs have to get better at making it known that it is possible to accommodate for disabled skiers. And I think people with disabilities must dare to seek out activities themselves too.
“Lots of people are not aware of the opportunities that exist.”
The young athlete works out around 800 hours a year, with particular focus on core strength as that is key to be able to stabilize on a sit-ski. During the summer he spends 40 days or so at a summer ski centre.
The one man national para racing team also does a lot of weights, including pull-ups in and with his wheelchair, and swimming for his conditioning.
Pedersen trains with Aksel Lund Svindal and the other Norwegian national teams as well. “It is so cool that I get to be included with them and it is something we are all learning something from.”
However, because he is usually only training with able-bodied skiers, he does not get matched the same way as in competitions.
“Last summer we had a gathering at Folgefonna summer ski centre with the French, the Dutch and the Swiss national teams.
“That was incredibly educative for me as they have large teams and do some things differently.”
In the lead-up to next season’s World Championship in Switzerland, Pedersen is spending a month in Austria to hone in on his shape in the Alps.
It is challenging to combine his racing career with the life of a regular college student.
“I have definitely spent more time skiing than at school. My college is great at adapting so that I can sit the necessary tests and exams when I am around.
“But it is difficult to keep up with a subject like maths, where they teach you something new every lesson.”
Pedersen always brings his text books with him when he travels. “I think it is healthy to focus on something other than racing,” he said.
“Also, because there are not any prize money in para racing, I am dependent on my sponsors while I race. Once I retire from active racing it is important to have a good education to fall back on.”
All photos courtesy of Jesper Saltvik Pedersen.