December 28, 2012
Jeff Dean and the skier from New York whom he was guiding that day stood on the cornice overlooking Kirkwood Mountain Resort. It was a high jump complicated by the fact that the East Coast visitor couldn’t see the ledge or the landing.
“I would describe to him what it looked like, and what he should do. When we got to the bottom we had snowboarders and skiers patting us on the back. They couldn’t believe someone who was completely blind would try something like that,” Dean said.
Dean has worked as the program coordinator for Discovery Blind Sports – a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering self-sufficiency in blind and visually impaired children and adults – for the past six years. He started guiding 15 years ago when he answered a newspaper ad seeking confident skiers and boarders who could teach challenging winter sports to people with little or no vision.
“I was raised to volunteer, and I saw this and it seemed really neat. I woke up Monday after guiding on the weekend and I noticed my cheeks really hurt. And I realized it was from smiling so much,” Dean said.
Mike May founded Discovery Blind Sports in 1979 to teach blind skiers how to race. The program’s shifted away from the racing emphasis over the past three decades and now leads snowsports enthusiasts on day-long mountain tours, most of which take place at the nonprofit’s home resort, Kirkwood. But the guides will travel wherever their clients want them to go –Dean said he’s still hoping for that all-expenses-paid ski trip to Europe.
Other than potential travel costs, lift tickets and rentals, the guide program is free to skiers and boarders who need it. Discovery Blind Sports’ 50 guides, all of whom are volunteers, will serve about 30 to 50 visitors annually who come from all over the country. The organization’s developed a unique guiding method that draws people who want a companion to help them learn how to navigate the slopes.
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Unlike most blind skiing and snowboarding programs, Discovery Blind Sports leads clients from the front. It’s harder on the guide, but it provides a buffer zone for the rider that makes him or her feel more comfortable, Dean said.
The hardest part is communication.
“We’re different in that we’re not ski instructors, we’re ski guides. It’s not a lesson. We’re there to be their ski partner. Some of the hardest challenges are conveying to them what you want them to do in a good manner,” Dean said.
Imagine taking a never-ever out for their first day on the mountain. Then imagine that he or she can’t even see their equipment. To teach blind skiers and riders, Dean first has them touch the skis or board and then walk through the different positions they’ll need to make it down the slope.
Once they’re comfortable, Dean will tell them how to load and unload a chairlift. Only then will they step into the bindings and start sliding. Usually visually impaired athletes have good muscle memory and it might take a novice skier only a day or two of practice before hitting an intermediate slope, Dean said.
From there, they’re free to jump as many cornices as they want.
“They’ve got something to show their friends back home that they can brag about. It’s a lack of fear where obstacles just don’t matter,” Dean said.