The klaxon sounds. You drive your poles hard into the ground and launch out of the start gate. A loud voice in your ear calls out the first obstacle: ‘Hard right. Icy corner.’ Your left ski slips as you enter the turn, but you correct it, levelling out just as the loud voice calls again: ‘Hold. Hold. Hold.’ You stick to your line, traversing at speed across the slope. The voice calls again: ‘Steep ruts. Left fall-away turn.’ You shift your weight as your skis chatter over the previous racers’ tracks in the hard-packed snow, then brace yourself for the drop.
This is guided skiing, as experienced by all visually impaired athletes competing in downhill races. Armed with a bluetooth headset in their helmet and a ski guide just feet in front, racers place their trust in brief aural instructions as they navigate the gates of a slalom course.
Madison Baumann, a visually impaired skier from Washington State, has raced her whole life. First clipping in aged two, she honed her skills on the ski slopes in nearby Whistler until a car accident when she was 11 years old stripped her of her vision in her left eye, leaving only partial sight in her right. Now 25, she’s worked hard to regain the confidence to race again. Only this time around, she skis with a guide.
“In every visually impaired category of competition you ski with a guide” explains Madison. “My guide, Hillary, is also an assistant coach with the ski team at the National Ability Center (NAC). She helps me down the hill by calling out the obstacles or features. ‘It’s a delay.’ ‘It’s a double.’ ‘It’s an icy turn.’ I call out ‘got it’ or ‘made it’ or, when I’ve fallen, ‘skier down!’ Then she knows to stop.
“Hilary and I have skied together for three years. One of the big things they recommend with visually impaired skiers is for your guide to be the same body type as you. I’m a towering 4 foot 10 inches” laughs Madison, “so skiing with someone a lot taller than me is hard because our skis do different things when they hit the hill. Hillary is 4 foot 11 inches, so we’re a match made in heaven.”
Getting paired with a guide isn’t always straightforward. It mostly happens through word of mouth, or through a mutual friend, but the NAC can help. When Madison’s last guide was injured a week before a race, they stepped in. The center paired her with Hillary because she’d also grown up racing, just like Madison. She knew how to run a hill. “You have to have a lot of faith in the person you’re following. You need to be able to trust they’re going to get you down in one piece.”
Danelle Umstead, an alpine skier on the US Paralympics team, skis with her husband Rob Umstead as her sighted guide. Clear evidence of the kinds of bonds formed between skiers and guides, together they won bronze medals in both the downhill and super combined disciplines at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games. “It’s really cool to see their relationship on the hill,” says Madison. “They have such trust in each other, through all aspects of their lives.”
Away from the slopes, Madison’s day job is customer services associate at the NAC. She responds to emails, helps out with reservations, and pitches in with the donor side of the business. Starting in 1985 based out of a trailer at the bottom of Park City Mountain, the NAC initially helped veterans who were just back from war and suffering from physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder to get out and recreate. As time went on, the remit grew to cover all individuals with disabilities and their families. It now offers skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and fat tire biking in the winter, and cycling, archery, kayaking, wakeboarding and rafting in the summer.
An estimated 48.9 million people in the US have a disability, and of those it’s thought that 85 percent are not active. But the latter is reversing fast. Thanks in large part to the exposure provided by the Paralympics—and the near-blanket CBS coverage of the 2018 winter games in PyeongChang—more and more people are taking up adaptive sports, and adaptive skiing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
“I’m not just surrounded by visually impaired skiers” says Madison. “There are people who are paralyzed, who have cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or are missing a limb. It’s amazing to watch them ski down the hill on adapted equipment and conquer not only ski racing, but life in general.”
Last year, during the games in South Korea, the NAC took a group of 12 athletes and instructors on a cultural exchange aimed at introducing adaptive skiing to South Korean people with disabilities. Many of the participants had never seen snow before, let alone stepped into a pair of skis. Madison was one of the athletes chosen to attend, and remembers the trip fondly: “It was such an incredible experience. One of the kids I worked with was using a bamboo pole—which two instructors hold to support the skier in the middle—and about a third of the way down he yelled that he didn’t want it anymore. For the rest of the day he skied without it. It was amazing how fast he picked it up, and he loved it.”
This year, Madison had designs on competing in ski racing full-time, but an unexpected roadblock put a stop to her plans. Every athlete must have a license to race, and for disabled athletes, this also includes a disability classification. Determined through assessment by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in Germany, Madison made the journey to have her eyesight classified by the IPC doctors to decide what factor she should have for ski racing. After undergoing the tests, she was told that she had too much sight to qualify.
“I have 10 degrees too much peripheral vision to the left side. They classified me as a B4 factor racer, and the only categories that can currently compete in the US are B1-3. It changed my whole season.
“We all thought I’d have been in the B3 category—which is the most vision in visually impaired skiers. The problem is, if you can’t compete in your class in your own country, then you aren’t a registered racer, so you can’t compete internationally. I’m stuck in a grey area where I’m too blind to ski with the able bodied racers, but I have too much vision to ski with the blind racers.”
While disappointing, there’s still hope for Madison’s dream of competing. This season, the IPC have run tests with fully sighted skiers using goggles that obscure part of the vision, in an effort to better understand where the boundary lies for skiing unguided. “We’re hoping someone with 53 degrees of vision says, ‘I can’t do this all alone’” explains Madison. “Right now the cut-off is 40 degrees, and I’m just outside of that. They’ll either change it, or stick with what they’ve got.”
Until then, she’ll stay involved with the team at the NAC in whatever way she can. Whether that’s providing coaching to the newest athletes, or simply carting jackets from the starting gates to the bottom of the hill.
“I want to help my athletes—and friends—make it to the national team and the next winter games. Hopefully the IPC will change the rules and I’ll be able to start competing again. Who knows, I could be at the next winter games, too.
“Our team size has doubled since last year, and it’s so satisfying to watch people getting involved and conquering their fear of hitting the slalom gates. I’m a happier and luckier person to be a part of the National Ability Center. Not only as part of their race team, but as a member of staff and their family.”
The National Ability Center empowers individuals of all abilities by building self-esteem, confidence and lifetime skills through sport, recreation and educational programs. Find out more about their work at www.discovernac.org.