The National Blind Skiing Championship

Just came in from the frozen Penns Woods snowshoeing with my wife Janet and I thought about a time a while back that was a heck of a lot colder than we were today. I had the idea one year to take Tom Burgunder and Fred Siget, two of our better blind skiers in Western Pa. BOLD to the National Blind Skiing Championships in Blackjack,Michigan. Now, Blackjack is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan lovingly called the U.P. by our midwestern friends. The U.P. is really pretty in the summer but brutally cold in the winter with its northern location and proximity to Lake Superior.

Our merry band of three went to the Pittsburgh airport and traveled to Minneapolis. Once we landed we got our stuff and got on a bus headed to the U.P. with about 13 other visually handicapped skiers who were competing in the event. I noticed that there were not many folks on the bus aside from the skiers and it was so cold that the bus temperature was zero. At 60 MPH on the road with the temp hovering around 40 below F., the best the bus heater could do was warm it to zero. Tom, Fred and I put on every bit of our ski gear and shivered on the long drive to the U.P. We arrived in a raging blizzard at the Holiday Inn with no volunteers to help us because of the snow and the bitter cold. The bus driver dropped all the luggage in the driveway and yours truly had to figure out whose luggage belonged to who. I got the 13 others plus my guys into the hotel and then went about the frozen business of getting luggage into the hotel and into the appropriate rooms for the skiers. Late that night, I got a call from the event coordinator who said that there would be volunteers there in the morning but that I would be assigned several condos and a van and all of a sudden I was in charge of 15 blind athletes competing in Alpine as well as Nordic events.

The event coordinator also told me that he needed my help in the early morning setting the course on the hill for the Alpine events. 40 below in dark conditions is wicked cold and driving up and down the course in a snowmobile only accentuates the agony. The U.P is known for Nordic events like cross country skiing and ski jumping. From Blackjack you could see the 70 meter jump at Iron Mountain which is a world reknown venue. Once the course was set each day for the Alpine events, I would return to the condos to get the group in a congo line for breakfast. That was a logistially challenging event in itself helping 15 visually handicapped folks with getting all their meals.

Once I piled them all in the van each day, I dropped them off at the appropriate venues and concentrated on getting my guys ready to compete. Our procedure for guiding is skiing behind the blind skier and calling out the commands. Right Turn, Left Turn, etc. This is especially challenging when you have fixed obstacles like Giant Slalom gates on the hill. But Fred and I made it through and in fact Fred did real well considering his age and the caliber of competition from all over the country. There are a number of different classes depending on the level of vision and we saw guides with big red lights on their backs with the skiers following. Others relied on verbal commands skiing in a similar fashion but our technique seemed to be the best in our minds even though we had the opportunity to see how others guide and follow.

Once again the coordinator from the United States Association of Blind Athletes called on me because of a shortage of cross country guides. He needed me to guide an accomplished XC skier. After only a few minutes of instructions from the skier, we took off at the start and began side by side in the dual tracks. I learned how to brake with the skier by each of us holding each others poles horizontally and me holding him back with a gliding wedge or snowplow down the steep sections. How we didn’t crash and burn was a mystery to me but after many uphills and downhills, we finished third for his class and he was thrilled. So was I only to be at the finish in one piece after virtually no experience guiding XC. After the awards, I returned each day with the van full of skiers off into the night for dinner at the condo.

This was definitely an event for a young Pat McCloskey. Between the congo lines, the assembly of equipment each day, the dawn patrol setting of race courses, guiding in 40 below temps, and maneuvering the van and snowmobile in whiteout conditions, I was one tired puppy at night. I also did grocery store runs and several of the group were vegetarians. WTH!!!!! I almost lost my mind but fortunately was able to find all the tofu, sprouts, etc that I needed. At the end of the week, I did have a download with the coordinators and suggested that the next time they beef up their volunteer base. They almost wore me completely out that week but whatever doesn’t kill you makes you strong- or something like that!! As hard as the conditions were and the daily logistical nightmares, I learned a lot that week. I saw perseverance with the athletes and the amazing independence of individuals willing to compete with little or no vision. How they make it successfully through a GS course or an XC venue without disastrous results is truly remarkable. Coming back from that event, our normal ski days with BOLD seemed like a piece of cake. My guiding was razor sharp because of that experience. Fred, Tom and I still talk about that week even after all these years. It bonded our friendship and also taught me that no matter what challenges faced me that week, they paled in comparison to the challenges these folks face every day. Thanks for reading!! 🙂

Right Turn……….Left Turn

IMG00106-20100110-1030 Let’s return to the “edgy” side shall we? Lets talk about something really out there like……..skiing when you are visually impaired. Right now, get up from your comfortable space and close your eyes. Try to move into the next room with your eyes closed. Do this carefully please. Feels strange right? Now ratchet that up about 100 times and imagine yourself locked into a pair of skis and sliding down a mountain. Scary huh? Well that is what many folks with impaired vision have done over the last 34 years of my involvement in an organization called Western Pa. BOLD(Blind Outdoor Leisure Development.) I first became involved with BOLD 34 years ago when I returned from Maine teaching skiing for the winter. The BOLD people were looking for someone to teach the guides for the blind how to effectively teach someone to ski. In turn they taught me how to interface with folks without sight or limited sight. It has been a great ride ever since and it has been amazing to me how courageous these folks are and how trusting to turn over their physical well being to a guide.
People generally learn to ski the same way in a flat area and then work their way to movement on skis. Visually impaired folks are no different except that you have to be more hands on than simply saying ” watch me”. Once they are up and running, the commmands are usually simple. Right turn, left turn, stay in that line, stop. The guide skis behind the skier and the two of them make their way down the mountain together. A remarkable vision for most sighted people to see on the hill. People are amazed!!
Fred Siget is our oldest skier. Fred and I met 34 years ago and I accompanied him along with Larry Walsh, who is the ski writer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, to Snowshoe,West Virginia. We worked with Fred who knew how to ski based on a little previous experience. When it came time for me to guide Fred for the first time, we were on Cup Run and there were very little people or obstacles in sight. Everything was fine until I noticed a large oak tree right in the middle of the trail. Damned if it wasn’t like a magnet that sucked Fred closer and closer as I tried to guide him around it. He eventually smacked it dead on and I felt terrible. But to Fred’s credit, he laughed and said,”my boy, that will be the first of many. Relax and you will be fine.” Fred and I have had many runs since then at Vail,Colorado, Seven Springs,and the National Blind Skiing Championships. He is a trooper and is now 90 years young. One of the best memories I have of Fred is when he told me he wanted to drive again. I said ok and we went to the upper lot at the Seven Springs Resort which was snow covered and I turned the wheel of my International Scout over to Fred. We laughed like hyenas as he floored it following my instructions on where to drive. The tears of joy in his eyes were something I will never forget along with the satisfaction that he didn’t flip my Scout when doing donuts in the parking lot that night.
Many other characters have entered and exited the ski program. We had an ex Hell’s Angel from Chicago decked in all of his gear learning to ski. The leathers and the chains and tattoos were not in accordance with standard ski garb but he sure had fun. Good thing!!! We had a nun who insisted on skiing with her habit and a ski jacket. She said to me to be careful because she had a colostomy. I encouraged her not to fall because it might cause interference with my ski wax. If you know what a Poma lift is, (surface lift with a long pole and platter that you put between your thighs to pull you uphill), I had the pleasure of getting behind many overweight blind skiers and going up the lift in tandem with my arms around them hoping that the two of us would not tip over. A lot of these folks relied on me to ski in front of them with their arms around me from behind and the two of us would glide down hill in a double wedge with my thighs screaming at me all night. What a workout. My good buddy John Good is a big fellah who liked to ski with a flask. He also liked to ski with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and he had a penchant for going the opposite direction of what I was asking him to do. Left turn John……no the other left John……..crash into the snow fence. John giggled, took a good belt from the flask and lit up another cig and said,” Lets go !!!!!” What a guy.
We have two ladies who are terrific skiers. Nancy Leverett who can ski basically everything with style and grace. She probably skis better than most sighted skiers. Nancy skis out west regularly and is really a “sight” to see. Maggie Ostrowski was a bronze medalist in the Atlanta Para-Olympics in Goal Ball( a form of soccer), and is equally gifted as a skier. Our guides are marvelous folks who offer their time and compassion. The bright orange bibs that say “Blind Skier” are visible often during the winter and the general public often remarks to me what an inspiration these folks are to the skiing population. I agree but I internalize the inspiration not so much by what they do on the slopes but by their courage to overcome their “disablity” and interact with the general public. When they ski, they are not disabled at all. They are part of the fun, bright, thrill seeking tribe that we call skiers. You can open your eyes now!! Right turn……Left turn…….back to your living room. Thanks for reading. For more informaiton on BOLD, contact http://www.wpabold.org.