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Resort Teaches the Blind How to Ski

April 16, 1988

DAVIS, W.Va. (AP) _ There’s no classroom pressure, no demand for performance, and no remorse for those who fall when blind students hit the slopes at Canaan Valley State Resort Park.

The resort hosts students from the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind each winter as part of its Blind Outdoor Leisure Development, teaching those who want to learn and guiding those who already know.

″The funnest part is falling down, and I like sliding around after you fall,″ said Joel Zimba, 13. He received his first instructions this spring on a day when temperatures climbed into the 60s.

Zimba was one of three totally blind skiers on the mountain during the three-day trip. He was joined by a dozen other skiers who are legally blind but have varying degrees of vision.

Blind skiers in the BOLD program, which began in the mid-1970s, begin with a guide’s hand on them at all times and eventually graduate to the end of an 8-foot pole held at a guide’s side. Finally, there’s a hands-off approach, during which voice commands are used to coach a skier down the mountain.

″When skiing with a skier on a stick, it’s fairly easy,″ said Fred Busk, a photographer in Canaan Valley who has been teaching blind students for 10 years. ″When it’s by voice command, it requires total concentration. You can’t let your mind go for an instant.″

But the plan is different for each skier. If a student is comfortable, progress can be steady. If a student isn’t, sticking to the basics is fine.

Robin Conley wasn’t comfortable.

On the second run of a scheduled full day of skiing, she sat back on her skis during a fall - a taboo even for sighted skiers - and traveled farther than expected.

″She didn’t like the idea of not stopping as soon as her backside hit the turf,″ said Tom Cadora, her guide.

″It scared me,″ said Conley, a 15-year-old.

It was back to the bunny slopes.

″We’ll try to get her calm here,″ Cadora said as the two tried again late in the afternoon. ″The question’s not me letting her, it’s her letting herself.″

Most important is total faith. Each skier is dependent on a guide to keep him clear of trouble - be it from trees or other skiers. The bond is so strong that students and teachers are on a first-name basis.

″I think she has a little less trust in herself and in me right now,″ said Cadora, a resort employee.

The most accomplished of the blind skiers was Rick Richmond, 17. Richmond has skied three years and this spring worked with Chip Mason for the second year in a row.

″Well, to me, it’s not hard at all,″ Richmond said. ″I had a ski instructor before (and) I said I wasn’t afraid, and we took right off on Timber Run,″ a beginners’ run from the top of the mountain.

On this year’s trip to Canaan Valley, Richmond and guide Mason tackled the Chute, a slope classified ″most difficult,″ and one generally avoided even by intermediate skiers.

″We trust each other a lot,″ Richmond said. ″We trust each other with our lives.″

And it’s gotten so that it’s hard to tell the two apart. As a practical joke, the two swap the orange bibs that warn that blind skiers are on the way.

Richmond’s reads ″BOLD GUIDE″ and Mason’s reads ″BLIND SKIER.″

Richmond’s is more accurate after the switch, especially when he shouts basic instructions to partially blind skiers along side. Mason, meanwhile, draws stares as he makes solo runs on his lunch hour and keeps his eyes out for snow bunnies.

″I help him and he helps me. We do all right,″ Richmond said.

The BOLD program was developed in the 1960s at Aspen, Colo., after a skier went blind but didn’t want to give up skiing. John Lutz, the director of the ski school at Canaan Valley, said it since has been expanded to include summer recreation such as rock climbing, camping and hiking.

It has been easy to teach blind skiers because they have no preconceived notions about the slope they are about to face, Busk said. Getting past the fear helps the most.

″This kind of mental approach is no different than the philosophy we apply to other skiers,″ Busk said. ″By instilling confidence, we’re able to teach.″

Having blind skiers on the mountain probably also helps sighted skiers, too, Busk said.

″They say, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it,’ and then they see a group of blind skiers go by,″ Busk said. ″Then they say, ’Oh, well, I guess I can.‴

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