Part 1: The Skier

[Editor Note: We met Chris Leghorn in a local North Shore community acoustic music jam. She sang and played her Martin HD 28 with both gusto and gentleness, depending on the song. In talking with her, we learned she had taken part in 19 Ski For Light events since 2001 as a cross country skier.  She started going to Ski For Light just as she was starting to experience adult onset blindness. Her story is inspirational and certainly worth hearing. In Part 1, we will tell Chris’ story; in Part 2, we will hear from a volunteer guide. We interviewed Chris after she returned from the Ski For Light 2019 gathering which took place this year in Granby, CO.]

Ski For Light is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization founded in the US in 1975 and modeled after the Norwegian Ridderrenn, a program that teaches blind, visually-, and mobility impaired people to cross-country ski. Each year, the US-based organization holds a week-long cross-country event at a different host resort. About 240-280 people attend, 100 or so blind or visually-impaired, another 12-15 mobility impaired, and the rest volunteer guides and organizers, some of whom travel from Norway, the UK, China, and even Barbados for the event. Many of the attendees return to SFL year after year. Aside from coming to learn or just enjoy cross-country skiing and to grow in independence, the SFL gives blind or mobility-challenged attendees a chance to not think much about being disabled for the week. They are just another participant at the event. The motto of SFL is “If I can do this, I can do anything” describes the attitude that drives the organization’s mission.

Chris with her guide at Ski For Light. Credit: Pam Owen

SeniorsSkiing.com: Chris, how did you get involved with Ski For Light?

Chris: I had heard of Ski For Light in 2001 when my eyesight was getting worse. I read some inspiring articles about the event that motivated me to try it out.  I knew I needed to find a way to do things I loved with assistance.  So, I went to my first SFL that year when I still had some vision.

SeniorsSkiing.com: What attracted you to SFL?

Chris: To my knowledge, SFL is the only event of its kind in the US. Many Alpine ski resorts have programs for blind skiers, but SFL is unique in what it offers.  The program was imported to the US from Norway where the Ridderrenn provided an opportunity for blind people to enjoy the winter. [Note: The Ridderrenn or “Knight’s Race” was started in 1964 by Erling Stordahl, who is blind, when he found he could ski with confidence in the tracks of army trucks without being afraid of bumping into anything. That basic idea formed a framework for Ski For Light.]

I had skied in my college years and had lived on a farm where there was a lot of opportunity to be on skis and outdoors in the winter.  But, before SFL, I hadn’t skied in 25 years. I was always athletic and loved the outdoors, and I needed to find a way to do activities in a different way. I still am very active, despite my blindness. I also do long-distance cycling, hiking, and kayaking.  I have completed three Blackburn Challenges in my double sea kayak. I am always looking for people to participate in these activities with me. [Note: The Blackburn Challenge is a 20-plus mile, arduous ocean rowing race around Cape Ann, MA.]

SeniorsSkiing.com: What is it like to ski with a guide?

Chris and Guide placed in end-of-week race. Credit: Pam Owen

Chris: It is awesome. We are paired with a guide for the whole week. New guides are given some training before the event. Everyone learns a common language to use like “half-track right”, “tips left”, and things like that. But we also talk about how we like certain directions. For example, if we are turning, does the skier prefer degrees or hands of a clock for reference.  Or does the skier want constant feedback or just some communication before a big turn or terrain change. I like to rank hills according to steepness from 1-5 and also length from short to long, i.e., a “long three”.  This communication helps me accurately determine what’s ahead.

The skier and the guide ski side-by-side in parallel tracks about four to six feet apart. Some skiers, however. prefer the guide to be ahead of them, others behind.  Again, it’s a preference you have to work out together. Once you work out the communications, it’s a matter of just heading out and doing it.

Every year, I try to express the depth of my gratitude to my guides for giving so much of themselves so that I can have a beautiful week of feeling free on the snow. Their response to my gratitude is always, “We are the winners here.”

Skiers and Guide ski in parallel tracks. Credit: Pam Owen

SeniorsSkiing.com: What have you learned about yourself through SFL?

Chris: I’ve learned that I take my attitude about my blindness too seriously, or rather my fear of how I am being judged about my blindness. There are many amazing sight-impaired people at SFL, and, in their presence, I have learned to be more relaxed about who I am as a person with failing eye sight. There is an incredible spirit of positivity that words can’t explain at Ski For Light.

When I am cross-country skiing beside my guide, I feel so free because I am not attached to my [guide] dog or holding onto someone’s arm. It’s a freedom I don’t feel much anymore, and it’s very special.

 

For more information about Ski For Light, donating, volunteering, or becoming a guide, click here for the SFL website.

 

 

One Comment

  1. Ski for Light is a wonderful organization. I ran a program for visually impaired for 34 years and what a rewarding experience. I got way more out of it than I put in. The people are so inspirational and organizations like Ski for Light make it all possible.

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