January 22, 2023 | at the FISU Winter University Games
For most people who try cross-country skiing for the first time, balancing on the skis and trying to move is a very demanding task. Now imagine doing the same thing… without seeing anything.
What seems impossible to many, for Johanna Recktenwald, a German para-ski athlete led by compatriot Valentin Haag, who represents their nation in sports at the 2023 FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, is a daily reality for Johanna Recktenwald.
Haag grew up in a sporty family in the rural Black Forest region in southern Germany and has been skiing since he was a young child, later racing nationally and participating in national championships.
Three years ago, he took an unusual path in his sports career: he became a Para-Nordic ski guide.
“Ultimately my dad got me into it,” explains Haag. “He was a para-Nordic skier himself, competing as a ‘single pole athlete’ because he has an arm handicap.”
Haag soon began pairing with Recktenwald in both biathlon and cross country racing, which is not uncommon in parasports.
“Beginning as a para-guide was honestly not as difficult as one might imagine from the outside. You get into it over time. When I first started working out with Johanna, our trainers literally told me “just ride together and Johanna will tell you what she needs.” “
Recktenwald has cone-rod dystrophy, an eye disease that causes blindness. He currently has vision two to three percent to the left. Thus, to practice her sport, she is very dependent on Haag.
“It’s a very demanding day-to-day life for me,” says Haag. “Especially if you are like me – I still like to actively race skis for myself. So balancing all three elements – learning, para-skiing and racing for yourself – is a lot.”
Haag is currently in his third season as a para-ski guide.
“We had a really good start at the Para World Cup in Finland last December. We won one silver and two gold medals – he says.
Being a para-ski guide obviously comes with a huge responsibility.
“Trying to put myself in the shoes of a disabled athlete, emphasizing what she can and cannot understand, and knowing when to give her what information is one of my primary tasks.
“One of my biggest challenges is a course with fast descents and steep turns because it’s hard to keep it in the right lane.”
Haag is a second-year student in Embedded Systems, a program that combines computer science and microelectrotechnics at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
“I think I’m doing pretty well for school, but I’d certainly do better if I had more time,” he says. “With everything that happens in sports, there are always some things that fall behind in terms of school.”
Besides being a para-ski guide, participating in the FISU World University Games was a dream Haag had set for himself since he started studying.
“The location here in the United States seemed very attractive to me, so when I heard that the Games would be held in Lake Placid, I was very tempted to go there.”
The decision to finally arrive, however, was not easy to make.
“I trained at Lake Placid all year, but then the Para-Ski World Championships schedule was changed, so it overlapped with the FISU Games. I’m glad we found a solution that keeps it working. Johanna is now competing with another experienced paraguide at worlds in Östersund, Sweden.”
Haag is in a completely different situation than most athletes competing at the FISU Games, but he is happy with his performance here.
“It was my first race as an athlete instead of a guide this year. So compared to the professionalism of many other athletes who compete here, I’m really happy with how it went.”
In Friday’s cyclo-cross relay, the German team finished sixth, which is “almost exactly what we expected,” says Haag.
“My main goal is to complete all necessary training hours with my para-athlete. So I need to see how much more training I can squeeze into my own training schedule. I probably have a lot less training hours than most competitors here.
Haag competed in the 2022 Winter Paralympics with Recktenwald, finishing fourth in two biathlon events. As for the future, he is open to whatever is to come.
“Being a paraguide is a very demanding job with lots of responsibilities – so I’ll see how I continue to work in the future.”