No Fear: Blind skiers take to Western slopes

Photos and story by THOMAS PEIPERT, Associated Press

Taking a deep breath, Wally Mozdzierz points his skis down the icy slope and leans forward. He hears the snow crunch and feels the contours change beneath him as he glides swiftly down the mountain, his guide following close behind.


Mozdzierz describes downhill skiing as exhilarating, adrenaline pumping and awesome _ all at the same time. And though thousands of outdoor enthusiasts experience those sensations every ski season, it's different for him.
 

He's totally blind.
 

“It's just so much fun skiing,” said Mozdierz, who was diagnosed with a hereditary eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa when he was about 20 and gradually lost his sight over the next two decades. “It's just something I never thought I would do again when I lost my vision.”
 

Mozdierz, who skis with his eyes closed (he says there's no point in keeping them open), tackles some of the steepest and most challenging terrain, including moguls and the toughest-rated double black diamond runs.
 

“It doesn't matter how steep a run is to me,” he said. “I think it freaks a lot of sighted people out. I can't see it so it doesn't freak me out. ... I have no fear.”
 

The 52-year-old Chicagoan follows verbal cues from a guide who tails him closely and watches his every move.
 

"Slight right. Good. Good. Sharp left. Good. Good. Shallow right," the guide barks as Mozdzierz navigates a bumpy and icy run at Colorado's Winter Park resort.

 

The mountain is home to the National Sports Center for the Disabled, which says it has provided nearly 1,200 snow sport lessons to more than 230 blind or visually impaired participants over the last three winters.
 

The American Blind Skiing Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit group with about 65 members, brought Mozdierz and about two dozen other legally blind skiers to the slopes last March and plans another trip to Steamboat Springs this spring.
 

Mozdierz _ who has taken some tumbles, hit some trees and has even fallen 50 to 60 feet off a sheer cliff into a pine bough while backcountry skiing in Alaska _ said he briefly felt sorry for himself after his diagnosis.
 

“But I figured you could feel sorry for yourself or you could figure out how to deal with this,” he said.
 

Mozdierz learned about blind skiing during a visit to Aurora, Colo., in 2004, when he and his team won the world series of beat ball, a modified form of baseball for the blind in which the ball beeps and the bases buzz. He contacted the American Blind Skiing Foundation back home, and he's been hooked ever since.
 

Jim Elliott, one of the group's guides, said the goal is to allow participants to feel like “heroes and champions.”
 

“And that's what we need, so you almost don't see the disability anymore,” he said. “These kinds of activities are very, very valuable and therapeutic, I think.”
 

Elliott became involved with the organization in the mid-1980s when his daughter Erin, who was born blind, threw down her cane and refused to learn Braille because she was being teased by her classmates. She was 9 years old at the time, and Elliott said he was at a loss of what to do _ until he discovered blind skiing.
 

"All of a sudden, it wasn't Erin the blind kid, it was Erin the skier," he said. "The fact that so many people don't ski, that when you have someone who is blind saying they went on a ski vacation, that's what is so powerful."
 

The foundation accepts skiers of all ability levels, but there's one attribute that is required of everyone: trust.
 

Blind skier Vic Gurganious, a member of the alpine ski team at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, says he follows his guide “like a religion.”
 

“The guide is the most important part of your equipment,” he said. “You can have good skis. You can have good poles. You can have good conditions. But without a decent guide, you’re not going to perform.”
 

The 52-year-old, who has extremely poor vision due to albinism, says he reaches speeds of up to 60 mph and communicates with his guide via a two-way radio built into his helmet.
 

He hopes to make the U.S. disabled ski team and to participate in the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, next year.
 

For Gurganious, skiing began as a whim when he played hooky at a conference in Reno, Nev., and hit the slopes near Lake Tahoe. But for others it has served as a way to defeat depression and a sedentary lifestyle that sometimes results from being blind.
 

Danelle Umstead, who has retinitis pigmentosa, says her father got her into skiing during a particularly low part of her life.
 

“I had lost all usable vision. I had lost my mother. I had lost my will to live, and so when my father took me skiing I had probably been in a bad place for a few years,” said Umstead, who said she went from being a couch potato to a ski bum.
 

“It still brings joy to my heart and tears to my eyes because the freedom was just there immediately,” said Umstead, 40. “The sense of ‘What have I been doing for three years? Why have I been sitting back feeling sorry for myself? Why haven't I been getting out there and trying new things?’ It just was the beginning of my life. That's when I started living my life."
 

With her husband as her guide, she won two bronze medals at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver _ one in the downhill and one in Super-combined events.
 

“When the man put the medal around my neck and said, ‘you made your country proud,’ my heart sunk and my neck sunk because the medal weighed so much,” she said. “As the tears were falling I just was like ‘this is what we've been working so hard for. This is everything I believed I couldn’t be, and this is just the beginning of everything I want to be.”