Blind World Magazine

Ski for Light participants conquer slopes, fun.

January 27, 2006.
Black Hills Pioneer - Spearfish,SD,USA.

LEAD - They fell, they crashed, they had fun and they triumphed.

More than 100 people from 12 states and six countries participated in the 27th annual Ski for Light, which began Monday and ended Thursday afternoon with races at Deer Mountain.

Throughout the four days physically and visually impaired participants were paired with fully capable skiers to enjoy being outside.

"Ski for Light is a program that provides outdoor activities for the visually impaired, blind and physically challenged participants," said Don Theye, the cross-country coordinator. "It's a big family here. It has been going on for years and some of our participants come back year after year because they enjoy what they are doing, and they have an opportunity to do something outdoors."

In fact, he said some participants have attended annually for 20 years or more.

One of those participants, Dawn Srstka, from Sioux Falls, said this is her 21st year attending the event.

As a child she grew up in Hill City and learned to ski on a pair of homemade skis. The winter recreation still draws her outside to have fun.

A lot of people will say they can't stand winter because of the ice and the cold and snow ... or they will say I am too old for that, but when I think about people that we have had here in the past, we have had babies, a few women who were pregnant ... and we've had people of all ages," Srstka said. "Its all ages, all different lifestyles, all different skiing and sledding abilities, everyone can enjoy it."

She said another plus for her is the people she has gotten to know over the last 21 years.

"I call it my family reunion," she said. "If you get to know these people long enough they are like a second family."

For some participants, Ski for Light can be a life-altering experience.

"Not too many years ago, to think that a person who couldn't see or couldn't walk, could ski, that was unheard of," Theye said. "Now, this gives them the opportunity to do just that.

"This opens a door to a new opportunity," he added. "And, if you open the door to one opportunity, there are other doors that someone can open."

One door a visually impaired skier opened was independence.

"It (Ski for Light) makes you feel independent that you can go do something like this," said Stacy Block, a six-time participant from Lemmon. "It gives you a little break on life and a chance to go skiing, otherwise I wouldn't be able to do something like this."

Block skied before, nearly 25 years ago, but a degenerative eye disease slowly took his vision from him.

"It changes your life and career," he said. "It changes everything that you do actually. You have to learn how to do things differently. You have to have the attitude that you can still do things, you just may have to do them differently. Some things you can do faster than a sighted person, some things you can't."

Although the loss of his eyesight closed one portion of his life, it opened a whole new world to Block.

"It's probably who I am, because of my vision loss," he said. "I probably would be a different person if I had normal vision. I wouldn't be here. I probably wouldn't even live in South Dakota."

Another participant who had a whole new world opened was Matt Feeney, of Winter Park Colo. In 1988 he broke his back while diving at Lake Powell, in southern Utah. His accident left him in a wheelchair.

"I had skied since I was about 8 years old, and at 25, when I became disabled, I had to learn how to ski again," Feeney said.

This time he learned to ski on a mono-ski, a specially designed seat with a ski attached. He soon mastered the mono-ski and began competing.

"After a few years of competing, I decided to retire from competing for instructing," he said. "I really enjoy skiing and teaching, but I really didn't enjoy racing that much."

He said he thinks teaching others to ski helps them with their goals.

"Mono-skiing is such a liberating sport," he said. "When we are in our chairs, there are curbs, stairs and narrow doorways. There are a lot of obstacles, and we get out on the snow on the mono-ski, we can go wherever we want."

Having skied under Feeney's tutelage, 16-year-old Molly Maxwell, from Piedmont, said skiing is one of the few outdoor recreational activities she can participate in.

"Ski for Light is a fun activity that we can do," Maxwell said. "Because we can't find many activities that we can do. (Mono-skiing) is something that most of us can do on our own. We can go up on the chairlift and do whatever a normal person can do, just sitting down."

She said the annual event gives people with disabilities a chance to participate in winter activities.

"It means that we can participate and not just where we have to sit around," she added. "This is probably the only sport that I've found that I can actually do by myself. Everything else is for able-bodied people."

She said Ski for Light, is a place where you can meet new people and have friendly competition.

"Although we are competing against each other, we are also competing for each other," she said. "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, or come in first or second. We just have fun."

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