Sunday, March 23, 2003

Lack of snow doesn't slow skiers

In SFL, disabilities simply disappear

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - What do you get when 300 people, who have paid lots of money and taken time off from work, arrive in a city where snow is a guarantee and skiing a given and the mercury is hanging in the mid to high 30s and the gray skies send only light rain and drizzle?

Anger? Frustration? Demands for money back?

Wrong. And wrong.

What you get is a magnificent, at times magical week of skiing despite the odds, laughter, music, impromptu outdoor games testing skills of herringbone and glide.

You get an occasional moose passing by to incite wonder, lessons in unusual Alaskan wildflowers - and, well, an unforgettable experience. Those familiar with the organization will tell you that, at Ski for Light International, it just can't happen any other way.

Teaching blind to ski

Since 1975, Norway's gift to hundreds of Americans with and without disabilities has been changing lives, infusing sometimes sedentary humans with an enthusiasm for the outdoors and winter sports.

To learn more about becoming a Ski for Light guide or a new visually impaired or mobility impaired participant, go to Web site.
Erling Stordahl, a Norwegian musician who was blind, had a dream of teaching blind people to ski. Its success in Norway led to his motivating friends to launch a similar program in the United States.

Each blind or visually impaired skier is paired with a sighted ski guide. Pairs ski in preset tracks, with the guide providing verbal information regarding terrain and technique. Sometimes emergency commands like "sit" are called for when a surprise tree or other interruption is too close for comfort.

Skiers range in age from 18 to 80, and come from throughout the world. While some are content with becoming recreational skiers, others become serious athletes, racing at speeds equivalent to some of the fastest Norwegians.

Dave Wilkinson, for example, a computer sales manager from Denver who is blind, learned to ski five years ago. He placed first in his division in the 10K race with a time of 00:31:50, beating Norwegian visually impaired skier, Andreas Strand by 6 minutes, 6 seconds.

Mobility-impaired skiers use shortened poles and use "sitskis" to enjoy the sport. They, too, are partnered with able-bodied guides, who are on hand to assist a spilled skier back on track. The main difficulty with finding guides for the mobility impaired participants (MIPs) is to find able-bodied skiers who are fast enough to keep up!

More than just skiing

Even in a good year with perfect snow conditions, there's more to Ski for Light than the skiing. The sport itself puts people with and without disabilities on a remarkably equal basis. The sharing and total discounting of who's blind or in a wheelchair and who isn't spills over into the apres ski activities as well. In the hot tub, the exercise room, the bar or dining room, "real world" inhibitions melt away.

While many guides and skiers return year after year, Ski for Light's emphasis is on recruiting new blind, visually impaired or mobility impaired skiers.

"If I can do this, I can do anything," is SFL's longtime motto. For many first-time skiers, the realization and freedom that accompanies the first successful hill or stretch of trail is a life-altering awakening.

Larry Showalter, the Seattle, Wash.-based SFL president, is an extraordinary example of what the annual week can accomplish.

A marketing executive with General Foods in White Plains, N.Y., until he lost his vision, Showalter cites SFL as a major milestone in reshaping his life as a blind person.

"Here was a group of intelligent, motivated blind people who were enjoying life and accomplishing real life goals. It gave me motivation and many role models," he says of his first Ski for Light week in 1993.

Ski for Light is not an organization of people doing for other people. It is a group of blind, visually impaired, mobility impaired and able-bodied skiers working collaboratively to pull off a fabulous event in a new location every year.

Working together

The snowless conditions in Anchorage presented one of the larger challenges the organization has faced, but the skiing still went on.

Conditions were icy and far from ideal, but those who came to ski did. On the only day when skiing was not practical, SFL board members and volunteers organized the "first annual Ski for Light Slush Fest," a tongue-in-cheek collection of relay races, down hill glides, uphill herringbone competitions, and more. All games were on skis except the incongruous orange toss.

Bud Keith of Arlington, Va., a retired civil rights professional with the Department of Health and Human Services, who is blind, is the only participant who has attended all 29 SFL events. He got involved in the beginning, he says, "because I believed that outdoor sports and exercise were the best ways to integrate blind kids and adults into the mainstream."

He was right.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430;

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