Medals have evaded Australia on the first day of the Sochi Winter Paralympic Games, but the team say they are only warming up.
Melissa Perrine, Mitchell Gourley and Toby Kane were all solid chances in Saturday’s downhill event, but none could convert smooth runs into a podium finish amid an astonishing field and much-improved course conditions.
Perrine fared the best of the trio in the women’s vision-impaired race, clocking fourth place on the two-kilometre high-speed course that has a vertical drop of more than 600 metres.
The 26-year-old from NSW and her guide Andrew Bor finished 4.6 seconds slower than the gold medallist, Slovakia’s reigning downhill world champion Henrieta Farkasova, who clocked 1:31.55.
But the 0.37-second difference between Perrine and bronze medallist Aleksandra Frantceva of Russia represented just a couple of shaky moments.
Perrine nearly slipped coming around a tricky turn near the top of the run, before flying well off course as she approached the finish.
For the woman who in January became Australia’s first female to win an IPC gold medal in this event, it marked the first chance in Sochi to put right the regrets of a medalless Vancouver 2010 campaign that was plagued by a fractured pelvis.
The disappointment of not being able to quite grasp it was clear.
“I was nervous but I was composed, and I was ready,” she said.
“If you’re not nervous at the top of a downhill, you have a screw loose.
“But I knew exactly what I had to do, and I executed that the most part.”
Jade Etherington of Great Britain won silver with 1:34.28.
Kane and Gourley were more positive after finishing sixth and seventh respectively in the men’s standing, which was won by Markus Salcher of Austria in 1:24.35.
Kane, a below-knee amputee who skies on only his left leg, said he was proud of the way he handled the nerves that came with being the first starter in the 17-strong field.
“I knew it was going to be really tough to be in there on that course,” said the 27-year-old from Melbourne.
“Some of the turns don’t stack up well on one leg, and some don’t work having a left leg as opposed to a right leg.”
His time of 1:26.25 was good enough to stay in second place for nearly half the event, which he said gave him confidence for the week ahead.
“We both got to hang out in the leaders’ box for a while together, which is always a bit of fun,” said Gourley, who finished in 1:26.71.
“I just leaked a lot of speed making one big mistake in a critical section.
“But personally, the intent was there. The thing that was missing that frustrated me during training came back and I feel more confident.”
Silver went to Russia’s Alexey Bugaev and bronze to Vincent Gauthier-Manuel of France.
Gourley and Kane will compete in the men’s Super-G on Sunday, while Perrine will contest the women’s Super-G on Monday.