March 6 - American Evan Strong and the Netherlands' Bibian Mentel put on a gold medal winning display at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic snowboard test event in the Russian city today setting the bar for next year's Games, which get underway in exactly one year and a day.
More than 25 athletes from 11 nations competed in the warm, sunny conditions on the technical and challenging course in Rosa Khutor, the Paralympic snow sports venue, as part of the IPCAS Snowboard Cross event.
There were events for both upper and lower limb impairment groups, although only the latter will feature on the Paralympic programme at Sochi 2014.
Last year's World Snowboard Federation (WSF) Para-snowboard world champion Strong (pictured top) had the fastest times on the first two runs on the men's side, allowing him to take gold despite having battled with illness over the past few days.
"After practice yesterday, I wasn't feeling super-confident, I was sliding down a lot of the turns," said the 15-time Winter X-Games gold medallist.
"I didn't really know how today was going to go.
"But as soon as I got out the start gate on my first run, it just felt super fluid, really good and I thought, 'I know this feeling, I know how to do this'."
Strong finished just 0.29sec ahead of his teammate Mike Shea, who clocked 1min 28.36sec, who had the fastest time on the third run and was consistently less than 0.2 behind Strong on the other runs.
"Mike Shea my teammate has been looking super aggressive and really fast all season, and he was definitely keeping it together better in the training," Strong added.
"Seeing that the first six guys were just half a second apart after the first two runs, I knew my work was cut out for me."
Shea was followed to the finish line by Carl Murphy of New Zealand, who took bronze in a time of 1:28.71.
Mentel, who is also coaching her Dutch teammates, won the women's race in 1:28.10 - a time that would have got her a silver medal in the men's race.
"I made a couple of mistakes on the first run, which I tried to address on the second," said the 40-year-old, the favourite for gold at Sochi 2014.
"The other women are really stepping it up, so of course I'll try to do my best.
"I'm going to try for the highest goal possible at Sochi 2014, of course, and I hope to bring a couple of other Dutch athletes."
Mentel's closest rival is Amy Purdy of the United States, who took silver in 1:46.09.
"I felt super-solid today, really fast," Purdy said after the test event.
"I of course had a couple of spots to clean up, but I felt really good."
The 33-year-old, who is the co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports, came second at the 2012 WSF Para-Snowboard World Championships and is now training full-time in the lead-up to Sochi.
"The goal's not necessarily to beat Bibian," Purdy explained.
"The goal for me is to ride the absolute best that I can and to show that double-leg amputees can compete with others in the field."
As a double-leg amputee – she had both legs amputated below the knee after contracting bacterial meningitis at the age of 19 – Purdy cannot feel her toes on either foot, unlike her rivals.
"It's very limiting now, but I know I can push through a lot of it," she added.
"I know a lot of it is in my head as well and I just have to do things a little bit differently.
"I have to work a lot harder than everybody else to stay competitive.
"Being a double [amputee] is definitely more challenging, but it doesn't mean it's not possible for me to be up there and beat the rest.
"Taking silver – I'm super-proud of that and I just want to keep riding hard and strong and make it here for 2014."
The Netherlands' Ilse van Rhenen won bronze in 2:36.20.
Meanwhile, in the women's upper limb impairment class, Italy's Sara Dorigatti was the only competitor and finished in 2:08.74.
Her teammates Roberto Cavicchi and David Preziosi finished in 1:38.74 and 1:39.57 to come first and second respectively in the men's upper limb impairment class.
The Sochi 2014 Paralympic test events continue on Friday (March 8) with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Alpine Skiing World Cup finals.
Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]
February 2013: Future of Para-snowboard looks promising as WSF and IPC meet to discuss sport
May 2012: New Zealand Para-snowboarding star hails Sochi 2014 announcement
May 2012: Para-snowboarding to make Paralympic debut at Sochi 2014 Games
October 2011: Mosher prepared for uphill task to get Para-snowboarding in the Games
August 2010: Para-snowboarding moves big step closer to inclusion for Sochi 2014