Blind athletes conquer Pico

From the Rutland Herald
Albert J. Marro / Rutland Herald Photo
Eileen Siminger (right) of Charlotte explains Saturday’s program to John Morgan of Adelphi, Md., during Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports day at Pico Peak Ski Resort in Killington.

By Brent Curtis Staff Writer - Published: January 18, 2010

Nineteen years after head injuries from a motorcycle accident robbed Cedric Hankerson of his sight, the 43-year-old was on a pair of skis at Pico ski area Saturday looking forward to his first thrill ride in a long time.

"I think it's going to be fun. I'd like a little adrenalin in my life again," the Atlanta, Ga., resident said while testing out a pair of skis for the first time in his life.

Learning to ski can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but Hankerson and more than a dozen other visually impaired skiers were pointing their skis downhill on the weekend without the ability to see the slopes and obstacles in their way.

Sound impossible? For the third year in a row, the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes and the visually impaired people they work with proved that it's not.

In conjunction with Vermont Adaptive, the Gibney Family Foundation and the U.S. Paralympics, the USABA offered three days of alpine and Nordic skiing to 14 people with varying degrees of visual impairment, who traveled from distant states for free lessons and volunteer assistance on the trails.

While the impaired skiers had little or no sight, their guides informed them about changes in the terrain or obstacles in their way. With a little help, some accomplished skiers were tackling challenging terrain on Saturday.

For Hankerson, who said he once had 2-0/18 vision, the first few steps on skis were a mixture of fear and excitement.

But for Alexis Miller, 4, of Jamestown, R.I., there was no sign of fear, only a big smile as she alternated between trying to walk and slide on her skis.

The sight of her daughter on skis also brought a smile to the face of her mother, Lauren Miller, who was happy to see Alexis expand her horizons.

"She hasn't been able to do much since her eye surgery," she said referring to a recent cornea transplant for her daughter, who has limited vision in one eye. "She did do swimming in the past, but with the eye surgery, the pool became off limits."

Providing new opportunities is what the USABA's ski festival is all about, according to Mark Lucas, the association's executive director.

"Our mission is to enhance lives," said Lucas, who was putting in some time on the slopes himself on Saturday. "It's not just about teaching people to ski. It's also teaching people how to live healthy lifestyles."

Cultivating a winter sport was the main reason why Matt Phalen of Rutland came to the mountain on Saturday.

The Rutland High School senior said he likes to bowl and play bocce, but he wanted something else to do during the winter to stay in shape.

While he had never tried skiing before, the 17-year-old, who has very nearsighted vision, said he wasn't worried about hitting the slopes knowing that he had a team of guides to help.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I never thought I would do this."

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