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Paralympics: The Aigners Are a Nation Unto Themselves

YANQING, China — The 2022 Winter Paralympics ended Sunday with China winning, by far, the most medals, 61, followed by the undaunted Ukrainian team and Canada.

But if the Aigner family, the four skiing siblings from rural Austria, were a country, they would have finished eighth at these Games. They captured more medals on their own, 11 (six golds), than countries like Norway, Japan, Italy and Sweden.

Veronika and the twins Johannes and Barbara, along with Elisabeth, Veronika’s older sister and guide, are a powerhouse ski nation unto themselves. They are the von Trapps of Austrian vision-impaired skiing, and their debut at the Paralympics created a lot of buzz.

The Aigners’ other guides are Klara Sykora and Matteo Fleischmann, who are boyfriend and girlfriend and honorary members of the Alpine Aigner clan, which took home nine of Austria’s 13 medals. (The guides’ medals do not count in the official standings, but Elisabeth Aigner said she would cherish her two as much as anyone else in the family.)

“We are very fortunate to experience this because not everyone can say they went to the Paralympics,” Elisabeth Aigner said. “But to be able to share it with the whole family is incredible.”

It was a family holiday, she said, but with a lot of medals.

Veronika Aigner, 19, won two gold medals with Elisabeth, 23, skiing down in front of her. When they won the first gold on Friday, they embraced at the finish line for over a minute.

“During that hug, we were not speaking a lot because we were crying so much,” Veronika said. “We were so happy, and so proud of Babsi, too.”

Babsi is Barbara Aigner, 16, the twin of Johannes Aigner. They burst onto the para Alpine ski scene at the world championships in January in Lillehammer, Norway, like a sudden storm, winning gold medals in their first major international competition.

When Johannes arrived in China, he was not certain he would even enter the vision-impaired downhill race until he fared well in a practice run. He entered and won gold, then won another gold in the giant slalom, and five medals in all.

These Paralympics are over, but the vision-impaired Alpine ski world will have to deal with this family for a long time.

“We have a lot of years ahead of us,” Barbara said through Sykora, her guide. “The goal is to keep continuing what we started.”

For most competitors in the age of Covid, traveling to the Paralympics meant going alone. Family members were not allowed to join adult competitors, but one parent or guardian could accompany each athlete under 18.

That enabled both parents, Petra and Christian Aigner, to make the trip, one for each of their 16-year-old twins. The only one who could not travel was Irmgard, the eldest, who once served as Veronika’s guide.

The three racers, Veronika, Barbara and Johannes, all have congenital cataracts, a condition at birth that causes cloudiness on the lens of the eye, which can cause decreased vision and blindness. The vision-impaired siblings have all had at least two surgeries to stabilize the decay, but they still have difficulty seeing and rely on guides to get down the slopes.

Petra Aigner was born with the same condition and has had 30 surgeries to keep it from growing worse. She is unable to see her children race from the stands, so Christian Aigner gives her turn-by-turn updates.

“I’m glad I can’t see it,” Petra Aigner said through an interpreter shortly after her daughters finished first and second in the slalom. “I would be too nervous.”

The Aigners live on a farm in Gloggnitz, a hamlet of roughly 6,000 people about an hour south of Vienna on the Austrian autobahn. The farm has 30 chickens that produce eggs for the family and neighbors, four work horses, a donkey and rabbits.

Christian Aigner works as a caretaker for a water pipeline that runs through nearby woods, and Petra tends to the farm, along with Barbara, who loves animals.

The older sisters were the first to ski; soon, all joined in. Sykora, who met them through racing, eventually became Barbara’s guide. Her father, Thomas Sykora, won the bronze medal in slalom at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

He now works as a television commentator. In one of his gigs, he dons a video camera atop his helmet and careens down the mountain, giving viewers in ski-mad Austria a sense of the course. He is a guide, of sorts, and Klara Sykora performs similar work, just for a single person.

One night last year, Klara Sykora went to dinner at the Aigners’ home and brought her boyfriend, Fleischmann, who was also a ski racer. Petra noticed how well Fleischmann got along with Johannes and asked him to serve as her son’s guide.

The guide role is critical in vision-impaired skiing and requires immaculate teamwork and an almost sacred trust. Guides descend the course ahead of the racer — not too far ahead, or they won’t be heard, but not so close to slow the racer or cause a crash. They call out the turns and bumps as they go. It is a unique bond, which explains why Sykora and Fleischmann are honorary Aigners.

“We feel very honored to be part of this family,” Klara Sykora said.

Soon after the group arrived in China for the Paralympics, the athletes’ village in Yanqing was dotted with Aigners everywhere, especially when the parents, who stayed in a hotel, joined them.

The last few days of racing, in particular, felt like a celebration of Aigner dominance on the slopes. There was Veronika and Elisabeth soaring down, almost as if tethered by string, followed on the medal podium by Barbara Aigner and Klara Sykora, while Johannes Aigner and Fleischmann racked up medals of their own.

In his first run on the giant slalom Friday, Johannes Aigner and Fleischmann were in second place, strong enough to virtually ensure a medal, as long as Johannes did not wipe out in his second run.

But he wanted more. He told Fleischmann he intended to go all out in their second run, much the way his Austrian forebear, Franz Klammer, did at the 1976 Olympics.

“It was a gamble,” Fleischmann said with a laugh, “but we talked it over and I completely supported his decision. And it paid off.”

When it was over, they greeted the rest of the family and surrogate family members, all but the parents in the uniform of the Austrian Paralympic Alpine racing team, a family nation of medal-winning Aigners.

“I’m really happy to have all my sisters and parents here,” Johannes Aigner said, with Fleischmann serving as translator. “It was unbelievable to come into the finish area and they are all here, cheering for you and hugging you and crying for you. It’s just unbelievable.”

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