Sunday, February 11, 2001

Blind skiers take to slopes


Event culminates in downhill heaven

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        GREEN BAY, Wis. - Pairs of friends, new and old, mill about on cross-country skis, wiggling and sliding skis to keep warm in the 19-degree chill of sunny Green Bay.

        Six national anthems play for the countries represented at the 26th annual Race and Rally for Ski for Light International.

        Pairs line up, with race bibs numbering one to 117, and, two by two, they are announced, sent off and cheered. My number is 106, so there is much fidgeting and blowing in mittens as I inch closer to the starting line.

Brand-new guide

        As a blind skier, I am in the right-hand pair of preset tracks. My guide, Carly Seeger, is in the left. The custom is to match instructor/guide with blind skier at week's beginning, to build a bond of trust that culminates on race day. My original guide, Kay Robertson of California, has been laid low by fever and nausea, so Carly and I just met this morning.

        We are both anxious. She wonders if I am a competent skier and able to follow her directions. I am concerned, in a more visceral way, for my own well-being. She is 22, a first-year instructor/guide, having just completed student teaching in Minnesota. Will she remember to tell me when a hill curves left or right and to stop if a tree is perilously near my face?

        By the time we reach the 1-kilometer marker on the 10-kilometer course, I am soaringly happy. The snow is excellent, the tracks perfect, and Carly Seeger turns out to be one of the most remarkable people who have guided me in my seven years of skiing. The information she gives me about terrain and technique is clear, concise and timely.

        My waxless skis are somewhat sluggish, but I don't care. The course is beautiful and effortless, and this new guide has the gift that so often breathes magic into the experience. Because she is doing her job so well, we both forget the she can see and I cannot.
       

Gift from Norway

        Ski for Light was born in 1975 as a sort of gift from Norway to America. The event is held in a new location each year, and skiers come from every state and several other countries. They are judges, physicians, business owners, forest rangers, college students and homemakers. Some are world-champion athletes, and others have done nothing athletic before.

        This year, the Tristate is represented by three other visually impaired participants — Jim Denham of Mount Airy, Chuck Lester of Wyoming and Michelle Lauer of Florence — and one guide/instructor. Dr. Daniel Beckman, an Anderson Township pathologist, happened to be skiing at a resort in Cable, Wis., in the mid-1980s. Seeing the enthusiasm of blind, visually impaired, and mobility-impaired skiers and their guides, he recalls saying to himself, “I'm going to do that someday.”

        In 1997, he contacted the organization. He has returned every year since. In the spirit so typical of Ski for Light, he speaks often to civic groups and has recruited friends and his own sister, a diving instructor in Hawaii, to become guides with him.

        The motto of Ski for Light is “If I can do this, I can do anything.”
       

Revel in the outdoors

        Corny maybe, but it captures the essence of the experience for everyone. For one week, people with and without disabilities revel in the beauty of the outdoors and the exhilarating sound and feel of skis shushing on snow.

        But the week is so much more. We suspend the hierarchy of one-up, one-down that exists in our lives at home and thrive, albeit temporarily, in an environment where no one keeps score — who has normal vision and who hasn't, who can walk and who uses a chair for mobility, who is old or young or Japanese or North Carolinian. All of that is superseded by the bond of doing something wonderful together.

        Perhaps the motto should be: “If we can do this here, we can do it anywhere.”

        For more information, visit the Ski for Light Web site at www.sfl.org.

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

       



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