Ski for Light Canada president Peter Quaiattini, right, cross-country skis with guide Jen Tweddell at Ski for Light Canada 2023 at William Watson Lodge in Kananaskis Country. The event paired visually impaired skiers with guides Jan. 22-28, 2024.Photo Courtesy of Alan Lam Photography

Navigating the cross-country trails around Kananaskis, verbal cues, sound and touch are a compass for those with vision loss.

Paired with a solid and stable track, three-time cross-country skiing Paralympic medallist and Canmore resident Sandy Lecour is golden.

She and about 30 other visually impaired or blind skiers of varying skill levels from across the world came together for Ski for Light Canada Jan 22-28 2024 at William Watson Lodge in Kananaskis.

For some, this was their first time on skis. 

“That’s really stepping out for these folks,” said Lecour, who is also a board member of the organization. “I think it’s great that we can offer that. Ski for Light’s a real special situation for visually impaired people because we can relax there because people use the language that blind people use.

“There’s certain mannerisms and things that exist in the world of blind people, and yes, we’re capable of many things, but it’s nice to go to Ski for Light and let your hair down and learn from other blind people – how they cope in situations and what they do.”

Lecour has Stargardt’s disease, a genetic condition that leads to vision loss and spreads from the centre of the eye. She relies on verbal cues from her skiing guide and husband, Jon Groeneveld, what little eyesight she has left in her periphery – about five per cent – and the feeling underfoot of the grooves and turns of cross-country tracks, to steer her.

It’s a strategy common to visually impaired skiers. In Lecour’s competitive racing career, it helped her win two gold medals in the women’s 5-km B2 and 10-km B2 at the 1988 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria, where she also won a bronze medal with teammates Kim Umback and Tricia Lovegrove in the women’s 3×5-km relay B2.

“You put your two skis in those tracks and start to ski and you lean heavily on the solidness and the stability of those tracks,” she said.

Skiing safely and comfortably looks a little different for each visually impaired skier, but at Ski for Light, it always involves a sighted guide to assist.

“For some people that have a bit of sight, they may want to follow their guide because they can see a little bit and they may ask their guide to wear a bright colour so they’re more visible,” said guide Nadine Johnson.

“For other people that have no sight, they may want the guide in the track right beside them if verbal cues are without amplification, like with a headset or radio, so they can easily hear them. Or, they might ski behind them because then they can project their voice forward.”

Some who are light sensitive might wear a blindfold to block out distracting shadows, she added. Others might do something different.

What’s the same is once a skier is on a track, a guide is there to help direct them through turns, hills and other twists.

Guide Jen Tweddell said she also likes to describe the environment around the trail.

“I like to share a bit about what I’m seeing, whether it’s the mountain view or some animal tracks,” she said. “I think that’s also nice to be having that awareness of what you might want to share with someone who’s travelling along with you but not able to see what you’re seeing.”

She said skiing as a guide also offers new perspective for her.

“It’s a more mindful experience because instead of just being on auto-pilot going around the trails, you’re really thinking about how your weight is transferring, what is coming up on the trail that’s affecting your skiing. It really forces you to be in the moment, to be observing what’s around you and to be feeling that experience of how your body’s moving through space.”

Canmore’s Bill McKeever said he knows the trails around William Watson Lodge better than some of the guides. McKeever also has Stargardt’s disease and started out with Ski for Light as a guide when he retired from teaching about 20 years ago. His time on the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park date back even further with his family and taking his sons, Robin and Brian McKeever, on cross-country trips.

Brian, who inherited the genetic disease from his father, is a Paralympic medallist 17 times over.

“They were short a guide, so it was the blind leading the blind, but I was a B3 and I got a B1 skier,” said McKeever of his first experience with Ski for Light.

B1, B2 and B3 are Paralympic classifications for blind sport created by the International Blind Sports Federation. A B1 athlete has no light perception and/or less than five per cent or no vision acuity, a B2 has about five per cent vision acuity and a B3 has 10 per cent.

McKeever said he has about six per cent of his vision left. With Stargardt’s, vision loss progresses from the centre of the eye, but peripheral vision is usually less affected. It often starts in childhood but can begin in early adulthood. For McKeever, he noticed he was losing his sight around seven or eight years old.

“I can see the trees on each side of the snow patch and that it’s white in the middle, I just can’t see the pine cone on the track, or maybe see a skier that’s fallen 50-feet or so down. But I’ve never run into anybody yet,” said McKeever.

“It’s important to keep a positive attitude.”

Lecour said Ski for Light is just as much about the social aspect as it is the cross-country skiing, with various activities planned throughout. People can ski as much or as little as they want. There are also races for friendly competition, but those are optional.

“We share our experiences and relax with each other, and that means a lot,” she said.

Ski for Light ran Jan. 22-28. Next year, the event will take place at the Canmore Nordic Centre for the first time in the event’s 46-year history in Canada.

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jan 24, 2024 at 14:57

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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