Eye On The Ball: Ski program bringing a little joy to a few lives | SierraSun.com
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Eye On The Ball: Ski program bringing a little joy to a few lives

Jamie Ball

One of the most powerful images I remember from growing up is captured in a simple, out-of-focus photo that hangs in an office somewhere in Georgia.

The picture is of my grandfather riding a motorcycle, at the control, with my own father, his son, on the back.

Most might not give the picture a second glance; out of context, it doesn’t hold much meaning.

But what most people don’t realize is that my grandfather was completely blind when the picture was taken. Look closer and you’ll see that my father is actually driving the bike. Look even closer and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the joy on an elderly man’s face.

His joy didn’t come from the sights zipping past him; it really wasn’t even from the feel of speed and wind whipping at his face, sensations he hadn’t felt in decades.

He is smiling because someone cared enough, because someone didn’t underestimate his ability to experience the same things those of us with good vision enjoy.

There’s a good group of people in our area called Sierra Regional Ski For Light, and they understand what I’m talking about. They know how to bring the same feelings to those among us who can’t see.

About eight days per year, as many as 30 blind skiers and their sighted guides pair up in the Tahoe and Truckee area to hit the trails in a program sponsored by Sierra Club, Sacramento Inner City Outings and Ski For Light. The program contacts the blind participants through various networks in Sacramento and the Sierra, but the sighted guides are all community volunteers.

The guides are people with a few skills in cross country skiing and a little time to spare. They are teachers, psychologists, chemists and lawyers.

The program started about 17 years ago with Betsy Rowell, who is classified as “high-partial,” which means though she can see a little and get around some on her own, she is considered legally blind. She can’t drive a car and said until she got up the nerve, she didn’t think she could ski. But she can, and quite well.

Starting with a program called Inner City Outings, which took underprivileged kids out to the country for a change of scenery, Rowell began the blind skier program, and it has grown every year since.

Truckee resident Mat Stein has been a guide with the program since 1986, and said it is an extremely rewarding experience.

“Some days are pretty rewarding, sometimes incredibly so. You think, ‘this person just had the best time of their life, and how wonderful it is to be able to help them,'” said Stein, a mechanical engineer and former ski instructor at Royal Gorge.

A training session for guides will take place this Saturday and Sunday at Tahoe Donner, and Stein said the training is an incredible experience in making you aware of how it feels to be blind.

The sessions begin Saturday evening with a video on sensitivity awareness and guiding techniques. The second part on Sunday involves on-snow training and pairing up with partners.

“First you are blindfolded and paired with a partner (who is not blindfolded) and the other one guides you and then you switch out,” said Stein.

“To be a sighted person and have that taken away suddenly changes your perspective,” Stein added. “It’s really a different thing.”

Stein said most of the blind or visually impaired participants in the program had sight at one time. He estimated only one-fifth of them were born blind.

“The ones who had sight at one time have a little coordination advantage,” Stein said.

Once trained, the guides remain on-call for events with the skiers. Approximately four or five times during the season, the skiers make a trip to our area for a one-day outing. The culmination of the program is a three-day event sponsored by Ski For Light which draws skiers from across the country.

“There’s no commitment required for training,” Stein said. “If you decide this isn’t your thing, you don’t have to participate.”

Qualifications are not stringent, Stein said.

“You should be a decent skier. You don’t have to be a really hot racer or anything like that. Most of the guides are at average level,” Stein said.

There is no cost for guides; the skiers pay their own way. Funds raised by Ski For Light go to scholarships, transportation for the skiers and Braille and audio materials.

The training is Saturday, Jan. 10, 7-9 p.m. in the Northwoods Clubhouse at Tahoe Donner and continues Sunday, Jan. 11, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area. For information, call Mat at 587-8818 or Eve at 587-1452.

I imagine this is a pretty fulfilling experience, and a good way to spend a day or two on the snow.

My grandfather never skied with me, but we often did the one thing we both did pretty well; played guitar together. Despite his lack of sight, he could still pick out every chord and individual note he used to play when he did have sight.

Unfortunately, a few months after the motorcycle ride, he died.

I think about the blind skiing program and wonder if he wouldn’t have enjoyed something like this.


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