Sunday, February 20, 2000

Ski for Light inspires 'can do' belief




BY DEBORAH KENDRICK
Enquirer contributor

        GRANBY, Colo. — Eight national flags hang from the deck at Snow Mountain Ranch, as eager skiers mill about, some from excitement, some in an attempt to stay warm.

        National anthems are played — France, the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States — as two by two, 300 racers line up according to numbers printed on their red and blue bibs.

IF YOU GO IN 2001
  Ski for Light 2001 will be held Jan. 21-28 in Green Bay, Wis. To apply as a guide, visually impaired participant or mobility-impaired participant, write to Ski for Light International, 1455 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 55408. Or visit the Ski for Light Web site at www.sfl.org.
  Although participants pay abut $600 each year for food, lodging, and trail fees, Washington, D.C.-based treasurer Judy Dixon says that “actual costs per participant are around $900.”
  SFL leaders are working to build an endowment fund to ensure that the magic of SFL will continue. At SFL 1999, Valerie Anders, wife of Apollo 8 astronaut and former U.S. ambassador to Norway, Bill Anders, surprised her Ski for Light friends with an endowment kick-off presentation of $25,000.
        The occasion is the end-of-week Race/Rally for the 25th annual Ski for Light International event. Half of the skiers are either blind or paraplegic.

        “If I can do this ... I can do anything,” has long been the motto of Ski for Light International, and everyone who has ever participated understands its meaning in a profound way.

        In 1963, Erling Storedal, a renowned Norweigan musician, who was blind, conceived the idea of teaching blind people to ski. In 1975, his colleague, Olav Pedersen, transplanted that idea to America.

        The mission is simple: Teach blind and visually impaired people to cross-country ski by using preset tracks and an individual guide/instructor assigned to each participant. Ski for Light founders were determined to share the love of skiing, the joy of sports and the appreciation of the outdoors with as many blind people as possible. The success of that early concept — rooted solidly in a remarkable base of family-style love and loyalty — has surpassed even those early lofty imaginings.

        While there was always a “mobility-impaired” component, that program was significantly enhanced in 1986, with the involvement of Jeff Pagels, a Wisconsin-based SFL board member who became paraplegic when a tree fell on him in 1984. Through Ski for Light, he reclaimed skiing, using a “sitski” and poles. Today, Mr. Pagels organizes the mobility-impaired participants in skiing and ice hockey for the SFL event.

        My first Ski for Light week was in 1980, in Traverse City, Mich. I had never seen or “laid hands” on skisyet, within minutes of examining the long wooden boards with bindings, I was gliding on snow, the voice of my guide close by, instructing me in the technique called diagonal stride. Within perhaps 20 minutes, she was shrieking with delight: “Oh my God, you're doing it! You can ski!”

        This 25th anniversary event marks the seventh such week for me. Each time, I become a better skier. Each year,I marvel at this one-of-a-kind organization and the awe-inspir ing effects it has.

        With or without disabilities, Ski for Light participants refer to the week as a life-changing event. Guides speak emotionally of those at home understanding that they have two families. Some guides recruit their friends, spouses, children or co-workers.

        Participants with visual or mobility impairments tell countless stories of new beginnings, broadened horizons, heightened self-esteem and, well, an enormous joie de vivre.

        An all-volunteer organization, Ski for Light board and committee members come from across the United States; some are blind, some sighted, some use wheelchairs. Each year, the program draws participants and guides from several other countries.

        Because the program's roots are in Norway, each year's event includes a “Norweigan Night,” in which we celebrate with our 50-60 Norweigan participants, taking in their country's food, dancing and culture.

        In honor of the 25th anniversary, the Crown Prince of Norway joined us, even acting as a guide. But the magic of Ski for Light isn't about splendid ceremonies and flags or even the thrill of unity with another country and culture.

        The magic is in the attitude, the infectious fabulous belief in every human being that permeates the ski trails, hot tub, dining room, dances and talent show. Only at Ski for Light does everyone seem to forget who's blind, who's got a wheelchair, who's got no detectable disability. Only at Ski for Light does everyone truly believe and know “If I can do this ... I can do anything.”

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at The Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:dkendrick@enquirer.com.

       



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