Always at the Limit

Anna Schaffelhuber has paraplegia. This does not stop her from going far beyond her physical limits, and as a multiple Paralympic champion and world champion, she skis faster than most of us. Experience her in person on a competition day in Kuhtai, Austria, preparing for the Paralympics in Pyeongchang.

The mountains glow blue at dawn and the small Tyrolean town of Kuhtai, located a good 2,000 meters above sea level, is just awakening. It is the calm before the storm on this December morning at 7.30 a.m. Alongside the first ski tourists, a young woman is also getting ready on a blue monoski-bob. Anna Schaffelhuber is currently the most successful para-alpine skier in the world and the face of German disabled sports. In total she won seven gold medals at the Paralympics in Sochi in Russia and Pyeongchan in South Korea, nine titles at world championships and she has also won the overall World Cup six times.

After the race is before the race: Anna Schaffelhuber takes time for an interview before she discusses the next day’s competition with the service team.

The 25-year-old native of Regensburg, Germany, skis fast – very fast curves this morning. But this is just the warm-up program. The International Paralympic Committee has organized an Alpine Skiing World Cup in Kuhtai in the week before Christmas. Two giant slaloms and two slaloms are on the program. Anna Schaffelhuber is among the favorites. She started skiing at the age of five – skiing on a ski-bob. The disabled athlete was born with incomplete paraplegia and was initially able to move with crutches thanks to residual functions in her legs, although a wheelchair became part of her everyday life at an early age.

Anna was soon just as fast

When Anna’s two brothers began skiing, Anna also wanted to join them on the slopes. Her father had read about a ski-bob course organized by the former Paralympic winner Gerda Pamler in Kaunertal, Austria, and he signed up his daughter. Anna liked the sport right away. “As soon as I sit on the monoski-bob I feel free”, she says. During their vacation together, her brothers and parents skied down the slopes on two skis, while Anna used the ski-bob and was soon just as fast as the rest of the family. At the age of 14, Gerda Pamler persuaded the young girl to take part in an assessment course of the German para-­alpine ski team: “I found out that I wasn’t so slow compared to the others.” Anna joined the squad, started three years later at the ­Paralympics 2010 in Vancouver and won bronze in the Super-G.

One hour after the morning warm-up, Anna takes the lift back up the mountain. The first round of the first giant slalom is coming up. She finishes the World Cup opener in third place. On the following day, she is knocked out after making a mistake in the first round of the second giant slalom. “I couldn’t cope with the frozen snow this time,” says Anna Schaffelhuber. She does better in the two slaloms: she comes second once and finishes the Para World Cup with a victory.

anna schaffelhuber

Monoski-bob athlete

Place of birth
Date of birth
January 26, 1993
150 cm
Disabled Sportsperson of the Year 2016
Sotchi 2014
Five gold medals in five disciplines
Pyeongchang 2018
Erfolgreichste alpine Rennläuferin mit zwei Gold- und einer Silbermedaille

Looking for new challenges

Anna Schaffelhuber aims high. Following her triumph at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, when she won gold in all five competitions: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, sitting downhill and in the combined, she found it hard to motivate herself again at first. “I thought: what comes next?” The challenge and the challengers were missing. “When you’re the hunter, you always have a face in front of your eyes. And then suddenly it’s you you’re up against.” However, she did not want to quit at the age of 21, especially since she had planned to do a four-year teaching degree. So she set herself new goals. She had not yet won gold in the sitting downhill event at a world championship. When she achieved this, she then started preparing for the next Paralympics. In Pyeongchang where she was accompanied by her parents and boyfriend, she confirmed “that my success four years ago was no coincidence” – and again won two gold medals.

It certainly takes courage. But I’m not afraid. I prefer to say I have respect.

Anna Schaffelhuber loves speed. On her monoski-bob she reaches up to 130 kilometers an hour on a downhill run and is thus only slightly slower than the best non-disabled alpine racers in the world. The Para Sportswoman of the Year 2016 is fascinated “by testing the limits skiing downhill”. She admits: “It certainly takes courage.” Sometimes she finds it difficult to throw herself down the steep slope in her monoski-bob. “But I’m not afraid. I prefer to say I have respect.” And that’s Important “in order to be able to assess the course correctly.”

A matter of trust – equipment

It is important to trust the equipment, in particular the ski-bob, which at 14 kilograms is the lightest ski-bob in the Para World Cup, but also the mono-ski, which is mounted under the apparatus. The ski must have a certain length and a minimum radius, and there are also regulations for the height of the binding plate. All this is checked before every race. By the way, Anna’s ski had previously been used by Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin as a training ski.

The ski-bob requires just as much tinkering. For Anna Schaffelhuber, there is no perfect equipment but only “perfect tuning”. Since 2012 she has been skiing on the same model with which she was so successful in Sochi and with which she has also started in Pyeongchang. The multiple paraplegic Paralympics winner Martin Braxenthaler developed the ski-bob but, says Anna Schaffelhuber, “it took two or three years before I could say that it now fits as perfectly as a shoe.”

She realized just how important the ski-bob was in 2009, half a year before her first Paralympics. She woke up one morning, aged 16, and found she could no longer walk with the aid of crutches, as accustomed. Neither could the doctors understand why, from one day to the next, she lost the residual function of her legs. Mentally processing this fact was as much of a challenge for Anna as the steepest pistes. Furthermore, her monoski-bob had to be modified, resulting in a different skiing experience, which she had to get used to in a short period of time.

Anna Schaffelhuber managed this and won her first medal in Vancouver, just as she had managed a lot in her life – with optimism and courage. Disability is not a problem for her, she just doesn’t like talking about it. “I have this physical condition just as others are taller or smaller. I can do everything, although some things just a bit differently,” she says. She pushes herself out of her monoski-bob with her strong upper arms, slides effortlessly into the adjacent wheelchair and makes her way swiftly to the ski room.

Anna’s monoski-bob

Individual sport equipment for use in the sit-skier sport class

Individual parts
Shell material
Total weight

14 kg
commercial alpine skis or ­standardized racing skis
Weight carbon shell
approx. 2 kg
Top speeds
approx. 130 km/h
Costs of manufacture
approx. € 14.000

Customized and the price of a small car: a monoski-bobs like the one used by Anna Schaffelhuber is a complex customized piece of equipment – catering perfectly to the disabled athlete’s needs. Ideally, such a bob compensates exactly for the disability so that the athlete can bring his or her strengths to the piste in the best possible way.