37th Annual Ski for Light International Week: Report from Soldier Hollow

Far West Nordic master and blind skier, Walt Raineri, took gold at the Ski for Light International Week Competition in Soldier Hollow, Utah on Saturday, February 11, 2012.

Far West Nordic Community:
 
Just finished up a week of Ski For Light International practice and competition sessions here at Soldier Hollow. On the 10th anniversary of the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic games here in Utah, the 37th Annual Ski For Light International competition began in the Olympic Stadium for Cross Country events at the Soldier Hollow facility.
     
The snow here was very sparse, but the good news is that it was cold at night and they have state of the art snow making machines which had been churning out piles of snow each night for 3 weeks prior to the competition. The day before our first practice session, there were only 2 km of groomed trails, but the crew at Soldier Hollow put in a long night before the first practice session and plowed the piles of man made snow around the course. We ended up with 5 km of amazingly well groomed trails which crisscrossed the landscape, had a lap around the Olympic Stadium, and had several steep inclines and descents to make things interesting.

The tracks and conditions were excellent all week, until Friday, the day before the race.  By 10 am, on Friday, February 10, it was already 40 F, to ultimately reach 46 F that day,  and slushy. Klister was barely holding and even then, you needed some shade to get a grip. The tracks on Friday got washed out quickly and the big question of the event was what wax to use for race day on Saturday, which was forecast to be the same as Friday.

Surprisingly, this time Old Man Winter decided to come watch the race and he brought  a morning of cold, crisp, 20 F weather to harden the tracks for the race. The grooming was perfect, almost manicured. Very fast, hard packed snow  was on the menu. I ended up using CF 8 for my outer layer of glide wax over two coats of base, and added some Rode multi grade kick wax over some base binder for the hills. After a warm up session, I added just a swirl of additional Rode multi grade and corked it in while killing a little pre start time on the start / finish line. This combination gave me fish hooks up the cold snow for the first set of steep hills, and glide so fast that I had to hold back just a bit for fear of tumbling on the corners.

I was told it was solid overcast skies overhead which created a white out effect for me at start time. Imagine looking out over the course and being in white out conditions in which you could not see the classic tracks, not even see your skis, but it was not snowing.  Not much wind at all, in fact.  This is how I start most of my cross country skiing sessions as a blind person. No way to see the tracks, the turns, the pitch of the curves, what is coming next, how steep the hill is or how long the climb is going to be, where the edge of the bridge is, and so on. This is where the Ski For Light  Guide comes in.

My Ski For Light Guide was from New Jersey, had a nickname of “Bull” and  reminded me every once in a while that hitting him was like hitting a wall, so “listen carefully.” He was / is an amazing athlete, and very fast on his skis, once he added some glide wax after the first day of practice.  Chad, the wax guru at Tahoe XC prepped my skis well as my guide could not keep up with me on that first day….or was it all the sprints up the first 200 m of track at Tahoe XC I did in preparation for this event.  Either way, we were a bullet train on the tracks, and only once did I run into the back of my guide who stopped suddenly to avoid another without any time to tell me to stop.

I use a very sophisticated dual 24 GHz frequency radio headset with full duplex functionality and 6 hours of hands free, constant talk time.  With this communication set up, my guide was able to whisper information about the conditions, tracks, turns, course layout, traffic ahead, and the location of the edge of that pesky bridge. He could be ahead, beside, or behind me and guide me around  the course, but we settled into a rhythm with him leading and me following.  It was the only way I could get the data about turns in time to take them at the speeds at which we were  moving.

Skiing blind is very different than for sighted skiers. The  slightest turn in the tracks at speed will toss you out of the tracks unless you can anticipate the curve, how sharp it is, and what comes right after the turn.  Here is where the oh, so important, guide comes in, together with practice time on the course to memorize as much of the course as possible so that timing issues can be worked out. Sighted skiers can just jump on the course and adjust quickly to what they see in terms of conditions, curves, length of straightaways, etc. and need little time on the course to work out timing matters. The need of the visually impaired competitors to familiarize themselves with the course is why this  event is a week long affair.

As things turned out from practice runs, I was the Number 1 seed, and that came with a bit of anxiety as I had never before been in this position, and only started skiing 1 year ago.  What the heck, I said to my guide.  “Just another workout” is what I whispered to him through our headsets as we stood  listening to the national anthems of  all 8 countries represented in the race. Nothing like being first out on the tracks in a time trial format race.  My biggest fear was falling as the Number 2 seed was a former World Cup Champion from Canada, with sponsorships and a quiver bag full of skis. He also had a very fast guide to take him around the course, which meant that if I fell, he would be right on me as the start splits were only 30 seconds apart.

And then the count down.  5….4….3….2….1…Beep, and we were off.  
We took off and the tracks were fast.  I actually had never been able to practice on the track with no one in front of me, so the experience was like a whole new race course. I fell 3 times, Ugh, primarily due to the fact that I was hitting the hairpin turns at speeds I had never been able to practice, and at one hairpin turn I nearly skied off a ledge. Good thing I could not see it. 
 
Long story  short, I clocked the fastest time on the course of all the 34 competitors, despite the three falls, and took the gold medal in my class with a time of 18 minutes, 21 seconds.  The next closest competitor was the World Cup guy from Canada who came in 2 minutes behind me, although he was competing in the partially sighted category so he, too, took the Gold for his class.  Asking around after the race, no  one could remember the last time a totally blind competitor had won the overall time trial race.

Of course, I was not happy with my performance as I fell three times, but I guess there is always something on which to work for next time.   Funny thing happened after the race.  It appears that a US Para Olympic coach was at the event and wants to talk to me about pursuing an Olympic career for the next Para Olympic Winter games in 2014.  It turns out that for the 5 km distance, I am one of the fastest blind skiers in the US at the moment.  Not sure what I will do with this opportunity, but it does provide some motivation for The Great Ski Race coming up in early March, from Tahoe City to Truckee, snow willing….and if the creek don’t rise.
 
Another funny thing is that today, Sunday, the day after the race, it finally began to snow here, and it is the first snow in over a month. What timing.
 
On the guiding front, there is a real need for fast guides at this race.  I was told that one of the main anxieties of the guides was to be out skied by their blind skier. Not sure if this occurred during this competition, with others, and I am pleased to say that my guide was right there, telling me through our headsets to “dig it out” as we  took on the final 500m steep climb to the finish. It would be wonderful if some fast Far West Nordic members considered joining the Ski For Light International community for one of these annual competitions as new guides for the organization. The better the guide, the better the blind skier can become, and universally, every guide seems to experience their own breakthroughs during the week, no matter how good they are.

As for the Ski For Light International organization itself, I will leave you with its motto.  “If I can do this, I can do anything.”  I heard of amazing stories of individuals who had never skied before in their lives, and at the end of the week were able to actually ski a full 5 km in the noncompetitive rally which occurs after the actual race.  I stood at the finish line to cheer others on after my finish, and I heard many very emotional moments being shared between guide and skier as they crossed the finish line and began a new  journey in their lives.

Walt Raineri

PS, if any Far West Nordic member is interested in becoming a guide for Ski For Light International, please feel free to email me and I will forward the information on to the organization for next year’s international competition which will be held during the last week of January, 2013, in Michigan. The experience could enhance your life in ways you cannot even imagine.