Coming into Focus
Being blind never slowed down Mike May.
Blinded by a chemical explosion at age 3, May took up downhill skiing at Kirkwood in 1979. That year he helped start the area’s blind skier program, which has helped him become a graceful and daring skier who can navigate Kirkwood’s expert slopes, literally, with his eyes closed.
This year, he set the speed skiing record for blind athletes – a title he’ll never be able to claim again.
One day in March, and for the first time in 43 years, May was able to see.
Stem-cell injections and a cornea transplant, a procedure that has only been successful a handful of times, restored sight to May’s right eye.
“They told me not to be too hopeful, and that it probably wouldn’t work, but when they took the bandages off the day after the operation, there was a flood of shapes and colors,” he said. “The first thing that came into focus was my wife’s face. I could see her beautiful smile and the way her hair framed her face.”
Then he saw his two boys, Carson, 8, and 6-year-old Wyndham.
“I’ve always been told about their beautiful blue eyes,” he said. “Now, I can see that for myself.”
Since then, he’s been seeing things he’s only been able to feel, or hear. Everything is candy to his eye.
With 20/400 vision, large images lurk at a distance and details are visible within 5 feet. But any vision is a bonus for May, who said he never expected to see during his lifetime.
“You can see way more detail than you can feel,” he said. “You think of someone’s face as eyes, nose, mouth and chin, but when you see that you see just how different all those things can be.”
Colors, which he could distinguish through a limited amount of light perception when he was blind, surprised him with a variety of hues he didn’t know existed. A marching band moved May to tears when he “saw” music for the first time. The sunrise from his summer home on Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe’s South Shore, made him gasp.
With his newfound sense, May wanted to see the slopes that he’s been skiing for more than 20 years. It’s also where he first met Jennifer, his wife of 11 years.
“It’s a weird feeling when something is familiar to you, and you think you know it,” May said, during a lunch break at Kirkwood’s Red Cliffs lodge. “To turn on the visual channel and actually see it is the same experience only in a different dimension.”
Verbal descriptions of Kirkwood’s volcanic precipices and winding ski runs were mental beacons for May, who could point out the landmarks even when he was blind.
Though he had the mountain mapped in memory, its scale was larger than life. Trees were taller and a darker green than he pictured in his mind’s eye. His favorite slopes – Kirkwood’s perilous Elevator Shaft and Sentinel Bowl – were steeper than he thought. The snow looked more textured than it felt under his feet.
But seeing isn’t always believing.
For May, who is president and chief executive officer of his own innovative software company, it’s a learning experience. Sometimes he has to close his eyes and touch the object before he’s able to recognize it in vision.
“Your brain has already figured out what these things are, and my brain is starting from scratch,” he said. “If I see a dark spot on the slope, I can’t tell right away if it’s a person, a shadow, a lift tower or a tree.”
He skied slower on his first day with sight than he did when he was blind. Every view offered a dangerous distraction, and he found himself closing his eyes for security, except on the occasion when a “snow bunny” crossed his path. Moguls, that he would fly through when he couldn’t see, told his brain to slow down the pace.
Objects in motion, like skiers and snowboarders, zipped by him quicker than his brain could process their identity.
Snowboarding’s shoveling sound sparked a curiosity in May long before he could see.
“Because I’ve never tried it before, I was really intrigued by snowboarding and watching how (snowboarders) move,” he said.
May’s situation brings to mind the movie “At First Sight” starring Val Kilmer.
Kilmer plays a blind man who, like May, regains vision later in life. Some of the experiences are pleasant for Kilmer’s character, others are overwhelming.
Jennifer said portions of the movie ring true, only with a much more joyful twist.
“There hasn’t been that angst or frustration,” she said. “Things haven’t changed all that much at home except for the little things. He can play catch with the kids now, and he knows when people walk up to him.”
She watched him walk into the lodge without the aid of a ski pole to feel the ground in front of his path.
“Little things like that are really all that’s changed,” she said.
May’s unending energy wasn’t a side effect that sprouted from his miracle surgery.
The Davis, Calif., resident always loved skiing at Kirkwood and windsurfing on Fallen Leaf Lake. He went skydiving once and would like to try it again now that he can see the ground from the airplane. He said his quest for a normal life as a blind man is what mentally prepared him for the world of seeing.
“I wasn’t trying to fix something, being blind isn’t being broken,” he said. “A lot of people sit and wait for a miracle but it’s important to get on with life.”
Read more about Mike May’s experiences on his Web site: http://www.SenderoGroup.com
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