Still going Strong: Maui snowboarder headed to third Winter Paralympics

Evan Strong of the United States crosses the finish line in the men’s snowboard banked slalom at the Winter Paralympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, on March 16, 2018. The former Maui resident, who lost his left leg below the knee when he was hit by a drunk driver on Hana Highway while riding his skateboard in 2004 at the age of 17, is set to compete in this third Paralympics next week in Beijing. AP file photos

Sitting in his hotel room in Los Angeles waiting for his COVID-19 test results that would clear him to get on a plane to Beijing for next week’s Paralympic Winter Games, former Maui resident Evan Strong was getting restless Tuesday.

He had just found out a few days earlier that he would be competing in his third Paralympics.

“Team USA doesn’t nominate their team until one or two weeks before the games and my nomination just came in this week,” Strong said. “I flew to Los Angeles to team outfitting in Los Angeles today. I’m actually here in my hotel room.

“I’m just going through opening and closing ceremony outfitting and debriefing on the Beijing Paralympic Games and going through all the pregame logistics before heading up over to China (today).”

Strong lost his left leg below the knee when he was hit by a drunk driver on Hana Highway while riding his skateboard in 2004 at the age of 17.

Evan Strong celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s snowboard cross event at the Sochi Paralympics on March 14, 2014.

He took up snowboarding in 2007 and rapidly moved up the ranks — he won a gold medal in snowboard cross in the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, and then claimed the silver medal in banked slalom in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Strong won the World Cup overall crystal globe in banked slalom this season and won a bronze medal in boarder cross at the recent world championships in Norway.

There was only a tiny bit of trepidation until he got final word he was scheduled to compete in Beijing.

“I was one of the top qualifiers for my division, so I felt confident about getting the nomination and also this is my third games and it’s been like this the last two, so this is familiar territory for me,” Strong said. “I just trust in my ability and I know my coaches see that, too, and the results follow.”

Strong is 35 years old, but after watching Team USA snowboard teammates Lindsay Jacobelis, 35, and Nick Baumgartner, 40, win gold in the Beijing Olympics last week, Strong is convinced this will not be his last games.

Evan Strong poses for a portrait at the Team USA media summit on Sept. 27, 2017, in Park City, Utah. Strong is in the banked slalom field and is first alternate for the U.S. team in boarder cross for the Beijing Paralympics, which begin March 4.

“I am 35 now and feeling better than I ever have,” Strong said. “So much of my sport has to do with strategy and once you find your competitive edge — and you put in a lot of your back work for strength and conditioning — once you find your competitive edge, if you stay healthy, you can compete in this for a long time.”

He added, “I’m just wanting to focus on this games and cross that bridge, but the next Winter Olympics are in Italy and it’d be really nice to go to a European games. All of my games I have been to thus far have all been in Asia, so it’d be cool to have a complimentary, opposite experience. I will be 39 for those games, but that doesn’t phase me that much.”

In 2018, Strong had his eyes set on trying to make Team USA for the able-bodied Olympic Games, but the COVID pandemic and injuries slowed those efforts over the last few years.

“I still love racing in able-body boarder cross and I do it whenever I can,” Strong said. “But unfortunately the last couple years I had to focus in on what I could accomplish, so unfortunately that’s been on the back-burner, but as long as I keep racing I will keep doing the able-bodied races because I want to race those able-bodied World Cup courses because that looks like such more my fit.

“It’s always in the back of my mind, it’s always been a goal of mine, so that’s not going to change now.”

Strong is in the banked slalom field for Beijing and is first alternate for the U.S. team in boarder cross. Banked slalom is a time-trial event, while boarder cross is a race of four per heat with the top two moving on to the next round until a final heat of four decides the medals.

With a silver medal in 2018 in banked slalom, there is only one thing that Strong has in mind in Beijing.

“Gold is always the goal, that’s always where my focus is on when I’m training and preparing,” Strong said. “I always reflect ‘Am I on goal for winning that gold?’ “

Maui is never far from Strong’s mind — he lived on the Valley Isle from 1994 to 2006.

“Maui’s always going to be home in my heart,” Strong said. “And I know once my snowboarding career is over, I know where I want to be. I dream pretty much nightly of being in the ocean, surfing on Maui.”

Strong moved to Lake Tahoe in October 2007 to work at the Northstar California Resort and to learn how to snowboard.

Strong and his wife of 11 years, Mariah, have two daughters, Indie, 7, and Isla, who turns 3 in March. Mariah Strong was born in Haiku; Indie was born in Peahi.

The Beijing Games will be a much difference experience for Strong due to COVID restrictions. His family will not be with him this time around, and he is preparing for the silence that awaits during competition.

“This is going to be a new experience for me because my family has been there with me the last two (Paralympics),” Strong said. “But no spectators at all are going to be allowed at these games, and that’ll be really weird because I love the crowd. I love hearing them cheer — when they get louder, I go faster.

“I get so much energy from the crowd, so this is going to be a very sterile experience for competition, having it pin-drop quiet, pretty much.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

Evan Strong celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s snowboard cross event at the Sochi Paralympics on March 14, 2014. Evan Strong poses for a portrait at the Team USA media summit on Sept. 27, 2017, in Park City, Utah. Strong is in the banked slalom field and is first alternate for the U.S. team in boarder cross for the Beijing Paralympics, which begin March 4. Evan Strong of the United States crosses the finish line in the men’s snowboard banked slalom at the Winter Paralympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, on March 16, 2018. The former Maui resident, who lost his left leg below the knee when he was hit by a drunk driver on Hana Highway while riding his skateboard in 2004 at the age of 17, is set to compete in this third Paralympics next week in Beijing. AP file photos

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