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Q&A: Sea to Sky Paralympic gold medallist on camaraderie, politics and food at the 2022 Games

Mollie Jepsen has returned from Beijing, where she won gold in women's standing downhill and a silver in the women's giant slalom.

Paralympian Mollie Jepsen is as Sea to Sky as you can get. 

The 22-year-old Canadian alpine skier was born in West Vancouver, trains in Whistler and attends Quest University in Squamish.

She’s just home from the whirlwind of the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics, where she won gold in women's standing downhill and garnered silver in the women's giant slalom.

The Squamish Chief caught up with a still-busy Jepsen for a chat about her wins, how this trip compared with her 2018 Paralympics experience and what is next for her. 

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

For your gold-medal run, what were you thinking when you got to the bottom of the hill? 

I was just stoked I didn't explode or something and that I made it to the finish. I was really confident with my downhill ski going into it. I knew if I put down a clean run what I could potentially do, but I wasn't sure that I did put down a clean enough run. I didn't know or relax until the whole race was done.

For those of us who may never hold an Olympic medal, can you tell us what they look like? 

I think the coolest part is just the way that each Games designs its medals. I am still learning about mine. The design is really beautiful.

A lot of thought and effort goes into making them beautiful and they represent different cultures. 

The other cool thing is that they all weigh differently. Gold is the heaviest, then silver and bronze is the lightest. That part is cool, too. 

Do athletes kind of panic about them? What if you lost one? 

One of my teammates always misplaces his. But we've learned they are actually really great about replacing them if you damage them or lose them. 

What was the environment like there compared with when you competed in 2018 Pyeongchang

In 2018, they had everyone stationed in the same village and you would go to your venues from there.

This time it was just the Alpine circuit that was in the village that we were in. So, it was everyone that I'm usually with all year on the circuit in Europe. It felt like a normal race. I think the biggest thing was just a lot of volunteers who were super amazing.

You have your own floor in the building, and every floor had its own group of volunteers who looked after us who were super amazing and really nice and there were volunteers who transferred you to ceremonies or awards and stuff. I think for this trip, you chatted with volunteers when last time you chatted with other athletes, and that was just COVID-related.

How aware were you of what was happening in Ukraine while you were there? (Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned before the opening ceremony and had to leave.)

A lot of stuff came out at the very end of the Games that we didn't know about that our coaches had known about and tried to keep away from us, which I think was really good because it was a very tense situation.

For us alpine skiers, we start our training runs before the opening ceremonies. And so the Russian athletes who I've been competing against all year were actually already on snow. 

We were pretty much racing already, prior to the decision that the International Paralympic Committee made, and so it was quite, quite intense and quite, I think, quite emotional for all of us. There's a couple of Russian athletes that I've competed with all year who are friends of mine, and it was really hard to kind of come to terms with the situation and also just realize, like, what's going on in the world while we are in this tiny little bubble in China. 

It was intense to have 75 athletes removed from a Paralympic village. 

It's just definitely something that I never anticipated happening. 

With COVID, you thought that was going to be the biggest hurdle and then all of a sudden, there's all this political stuff surrounding it. 

But at the end of the day, everything that was happening was extremely out of our control. 

So you just had to put your head down and do your job.

How were the COVID-19 protocols for the athletes in Beijing?

It was pretty strict. We actually had a little bit of a quarantine in Whistler before we went — as a team. We did a staging camp in Whistler beforehand so that we could all be together, just to minimize the risk when we got on our flight. We were able to do a charter flight with Air Canada — so that the entire Team Canada was on the same flight, just to also minimize the risk flying into Beijing. 

Once there, we had a PCR test every single day. 

It felt safe. I think you kind of knew that it took a lot to get to Beijing, and we knew that it probably wasn't the place you were going to get COVID. It was probably the safest I felt in two years. 

What was the food like? 

I think we were lucky, I heard that our village had the best food. I definitely have a lot of dietary restrictions and stuff that I follow. And so I was anticipating it being a little bit tough but the Canadian Paralympic Committee actually flew over a crate of food. We had our own storage room for all of our snacks and stuff just to make sure that we have everything we needed and we are getting taken care of from all angles.

Each community in the Sea to Sky Corridor kind of claims you as their own. Did you feel it over there how everybody here was watching and excited?

I was definitely a little bit nervous about how it would feel different compared to 2018. It honestly didn't feel that different.  

As soon as I got to the finish, I had my phone on me, which I guess was different. I didn't have my phone with me in 2018. We had SIM cards and everything this time so that we could be really connected with family. And my mom put up a bunch of stuff at home and people had T-shirts and that made me super emotional.

It was really cool to see everyone supporting me and it made me very nervous, too.

It was really amazing to have that support and everyone came to the airport when I came home. I think that was the biggest thing that was super emotional.

What was it like being the Canadian flag-bearer

It was something I really wanted to do in 2018 — I was runner up then. 

I really didn't expect it. It was a really amazing experience to go to the closing ceremonies and see all of the people I hadn't seen since the charter flight in. 

It was a huge honour. 

What is it like when your events are all done? What did you do? 

Usually, you spend a good amount of your time in doping control for a little while. That's like step one. If you are on the podium, you get the lovely honour of peeing in a cup. So that takes some time, that process. 

And I am quite an anxious person before I race so I am probably spending a lot of my time eating after, sort of making up for the amount of food I did not eat. We had a tuning room we would all go to and I would bring half the cafeteria down there and just eat. I would end up in the morning spending 10 minutes like peeling hard-boiled eggs to eat. 

This may be a question you hate after just accomplishing these amazing things, but what is next for you? 

That's a good question. I'm still kind of trying to figure it out. I was supposed to go back to class actually, in April, but I decided I'm not quite ready to go back to school just yet. I am a little bit too exhausted. 

So right now I'm just focusing on trying to relax.

Hopefully, backpack in Europe this summer with some friends. Have some time off before we kind of go into another four-year cycle of training and back to school.