Cross country skiing? Oh no, thats way too much work, is the stock answer when I seek out possible skiing partners. I tried downhill skiing once, but that was enough. Im not into terrorizing myself. When I attended my first Ski for Light, SFL, in 1986, I discovered that trudging up a snow-covered hill and reaching the top was exhilarating. When I zoomed down the other side and managed to still be on top of my skis, it was thrilling. When my skis found their rhythm as I strode across a meadow, the slapping sound of the skis, along with the rhythmic shussing sound comforted my soul. Sometimes, I would stop, and just listen to the quiet. One year in Colorado, I marveled at how I could actually hear the snowflakes gently landing on my shoulders, like a whispered secret. The secret was the joy of cross country skiing, and it was something to be shared.
Today at SFL, dozens of people, some of them for the first time, will share in that secret. Blind men and women who for many years havent taken a step outside their homes without the aid of a cane, a dog, or a sighted human guide, will bend their knees, plant their poles, and push off across the snow, independently, but with the calm assurance of a guide just beside them or just behind them, cuing and coaching, helping them to navigate through a crowd of skiers, stepping into their skis and preparing for a good run through the woods. Some will be fearful, not sure they can balance, not sure they can get up if they fall, afraid they wont have the stamina to climb the hills and even wonder why theyve invested so much time and money in learning a sport that most people would not associate with people with disabilities. But at SFL, the motto is, If I can do this, I can do anything.
Once weve tasted the Ski for Light experience, that motto keeps ringing throughout our lives. Its not just a sense of freedom of movement that we feel as we double pole down a slight decline, a sense of accomplishment when we cross the finish line at the race on the last day, or the discovery of our own strengths, but a combination of all of these. After SFL is over and weve put away our skis, we find ourselves turning to other challenges with a new positive attitude. Suddenly, it becomes much more important to us to be more active, to develop more healthful diets, and to seek out other ways to stay fit. We become cyclists, runners, hikers, backpackers, sailors, roller bladers, and leaders. We know that we can do just about anything, because If we can do this, we can do anything.
On the Monday night, after the first full day of skiing, the guides are invited to introduce themselves at the microphone at dinner. Over 100 people, whose careers are as varied as teachers, doctors, foresters, firemen, farmers, mail carriers, and any number of other occupations, one by one reveal that they keep coming back, year after year, at their own expense, not just for the skiing, but for the people. You see, that motto applies not to just the blind people, but also to the guides. What a challenge they are asked to meet. How they love that challenge. The guide introduction ceremony is very emotional for me. Where else on this earth will I find so many sighted people who get it? Here are people who understand that we are people first, that we are not helpless, that we have a sense of humor, that we are not amazing, not heroic, but just other winter-lovers who want to get out in it and play. This is the one opportunity that this can happen with the dignity and grace that doesnt happen anywhere else.