Teaching the blind to ski: Ski For Light guides disabled on slopes
“If I can do this, I can do anything.”
This motto could be heard again and again as it bounced off the sun-baked benches and swept through the wooded trails at Tahoe Donner Cross Country last weekend.
After nine years of dedicated service to the blind and visually impaired community, Sierra Regional Ski For Light continues to expand in numbers, notoriety and compassion.
Returning to Tahoe-Donner for three days of fun and a bit of skiing, the nonprofit, all-volunteer organization’s members gathered together to share their love of Nordic skiing and the outdoors.
Part of the International Ski for Light program, Sierra Regional was born in 1992 thanks to the hard work of Regional Coordinator Betsy Rowell and her endless supply of family, friends and admirers.
The event pairs volunteer guides with blind and visually impaired skiers, giving many participants their first opportunity to don cross country skis and feel the thrill of this challenging sport.
“This event focuses on skiing, not on blindness,” said skier Laura Offendahl.
Offendahl, a recent Berkeley transplant, started skiing with the International program 21 years ago. In 1980, she was overweight, smoked cigarettes and had never been on skis in her life. With virtually no peripheral vision and severely limited sight, her chances of becoming a star athlete were slight.
On Monday, Offendahl could be seen gliding confidently around trails and smiling the entire time.
For many visually impaired skiers, programs like Ski For Light provide opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
While the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act put the needs, desires and dreams of the blind community in the national spotlight, vital details are often overlooked in the process of creating outdoor programs for visually impaired people.
Downhill skiing programs for blind skiers are becoming more common, yet they often fail to encompass the greater picture that Ski for Light involves.
“Alpine programs are a lot more inaccessible. They are available if you can find out about them, get yourself there and provide all of the necessary accommodations. This is not the easiest thing for a blind person to do,” said skier Frank Welte.
Modifications are being made in virtually every realm of sport for the visually impaired, yet often these changes upset the very nature of the activity.
“You lose so much in changing the sport that it becomes less than what it was, that is the beauty of cross-country skiing. We are out here skiing like everyone else, nothing is different and you make your own moves,” Welte added.
For many visually impaired athletes, this is vital in their quest for acceptance and acknowledgement by the seeing public.
“The best way to show the non-disabled public what we can do is to be out skiing. Maybe even to pass them on the trail just to prove that we are athletes too,” program participant Jeff Thom asserted.
Thom, an attorney for the State Legislature in Sacramento and the group’s unofficial comedian, was drawn to cross country by Betsy over 14 years ago.
“I would never give it up,” he said.
The pride with which Ski for Light’s participants speak and carry themselves centers around their accomplishments on skis, but it extends into every aspect of their daily lives. They are students, professionals, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers and role models, and the confidence they gain outdoors in athletic pursuits permeates everything they attempt.
For volunteer guide Mark Landgraf, the dynamic of this amazing group is what makes teaching so rewarding.
Mark learned about the program in a Sierra Club newsletter a year ago and this weekend joined them again to ski, teach and more importantly to learn from his skiing partner Kitti Aby.
For Kitti, Mark was her eyes, her guide and her teacher. He pointed out ruts and irregularities along the course and dictated instructions as they cruised along the sun-softened snow.
What Mark was not prepared for was how much of a teacher Kitti would be for him. In his 20 years of Nordic skiing, he had never learned to describe the feel of a turn without visual aides.
Struggling to describe the perfect way to maneuver around a difficult bend, Mark found himself unable to correctly guide his partner through the turn.
After blindfolding himself and using his senses to direct him, he suddenly understood how to take Kitti through the course.
“I am teaching him too,” Kitti said, smiling.
Like many visually impaired people, Kitti lacks peripheral vision and has limited direct sight which makes many outdoor sports difficult. The crowds and speed associated with downhill skiing are often intimidating even for skiers with perfect sight, while cross country can be taken at a much slower pace.
“Doing this gives me patience and confidence that helps me cope with losing my sight,” added Kitti.
Over 65 skiers and volunteers gathered together to share so much more than skiing at Tahoe Donner March 10-12. A passion for life, sport, the outdoors and each other was found in every individual whether they were out for the first time or the fiftieth.
That is what Ski for Light is all about: exploring human potential and demonstrating the capabilities of blind and disabled persons not only to the general public but to themselves.
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