Para-alpine skier Mitch Gourley is embracing his fourth and final Winter Paralympics campaign, which comes after a lengthy hiatus from the sport.

Once a young star burdened by the weight of Australia’s hopes and his own expectations, a more reflective Mitch Gourley is finding freedom and enjoyment in the final weeks of his para-alpine skiing career.

Less than four months after he emerged from an almost-three-year hiatus, Gourley will sign off from para-alpine skiing at his fourth and final Winter Paralympics in Beijing, starting with Saturday’s downhill event.

The 30-year-old has mapped his thoughts on his personal Instagram page in the build-up, pulling up old photos and prized memories to thank the various people who have contributed to a decorated career which began as a 15-year-old schoolboy.

“I’ve known for quite a while this was going to be my last Games and the end of my career,” Gourley told reporters.

“It was just something I’d wanted to own and have out there and be comfortable with and not have to field those uncomfortable questions, ‘will you go another four years?’, all those kind of things. It was nice to do that.

“I’d been looking back at some old photos and journalling for my own purposes and writing things down and then I decided I’d do something I don’t normally do, which is jump on social media and really thank everyone that’s been a part of these 16 years of my life.

“It’s more than half of my life, so it’s a pretty big part of who I am as well as the athlete I am. It’s been really nice to reflect.”

Gourley had plenty of time to contemplate what he wanted to say.

He initially took a deliberately extended break after breaking his right wrist in a nasty crash at the World Championships in January 2019.

But his “long-service leave” turned into two years and 10 months away from international competition – courtesy of COVID-19 throwing an extra spanner in the works. In his time away, Gourley completed his Masters, worked and focused on managing his anxiety.

“At the time I called it long-service leave but on reflection it probably was for the most part a mental health break and a chance to get on top of some things,” he said.

“There was some really good practical reasons for it in terms of refreshing, finishing off my masters, getting some runs on the board transition-wise in terms of work experience and things.

“But also a big part of it was learning to deal with my anxiety in a more functional way and in a way that I could manage it on the road a bit better.”

It’s led to a measured approach to the Winter Paralympics, a stage that previously hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for 2017 super combined standing world champion Gourley, who’s yet to medal since his debut at Vancouver in 2010.

No longer “hung up on results”, Gourley will be Australia’s flagbearer alongside Melissa Perrine at Friday night’s opening ceremony, then will  embrace what comes next – starting with hitting 130km/hr in Yanqing on Saturday.

“I’m excited going into it but reflective and really grateful for the opportunity – probably more than normal, when I’d be really stuck into the competition detail side of things,” he said.

“It’s nice to go in just respecting what it is and how much it’s impacted my life.”

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