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Feature - Blind Skier

A lesson in teamwork

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Trust is the foundation for the bond between a blind skier and his guide

Picture this: You are standing on your skis at the top of the double black diamond Couloir Extreme run on Blackcomb Mountain. As you peer over the edge, you note how the ground drops away in front of you – the narrow entry, followed by a steep face of moguls. It’s a long way to the bottom and many turns before you reach an easier blue run.

Now, put on a blind-fold and drop in.

Among his many sporting achievements, 16-year-old blind skier Donovan Tildesley from Vancouver ranks skiing the Couloir Extreme as his greatest personal triumph. Blind since birth, Tildesley was first introduced to skiing at the age of three by his father and coach Hugh Tildesley, who was determined not to let his son’s disability interfere with his chances to savor life’s opportunities. The initial lessons he went through were special disabled skier programs on Grouse and Cyprus mountains, prior to taking on the bigger terrain on Whistler and Blackcomb.

"Ever since I was 10 and heard about the Couloir Extreme, that 57 degree angle and if you fell on it you didn’t come up alive and all these horror stories, so I’d always wanted to ski this run."

His chance came last season when there was enough snow to make the conditions soft and safe, and an instructor game enough to join him. Tildesley says his training for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, where he won bronze in the swimming individual medley, meant his legs were strong enough to take the continuous bumps of the Couloir.

Jody Chan, a local ski instructor and volunteer with the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program, recalls making the run with Tildesley – it was also the first time she had taken him out skiing.

"My heart was pounding and the entrance was a little tough," she says. "We sort of walked in until we could get that first turn but yeah, I was more scared than him."

However, when asked if she is still nervous about where Tildesley will want to ski next, she doesn’t hesitate.

"Oh I’m not scared anymore. I trust him as much as he trusts me and wherever he takes me next will be fun."

Trust is the foundation that blind skiing is built on. Blind skiers rely solely on the judgment of their guide to get them down the slopes, over the bumps and around objects, including other skiers. A wrong call or loss of concentration can have serious consequences.

"As a six year old skiing with my dad I couldn’t hear him over the wind on one of the local mountains and went over a powder cliff," Tildesley laughs. "That was the catalyst for us to say we need more than voice commands and got these walkie-talkies. And once we figured out how to work them, which took one more cliff, I couldn’t ski without them."

For the record, they still ski together.

The walkie-talkie system used by the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program comprises a speaker and microphone set-up within the blind skier’s helmet, while the instructor wears a mike headset. Generally the instructor skis behind, giving commands such as "turn left and right" and warning of the type of terrain coming up. Both wear bright reflective vests labeled "blind skier" to alert other riders and skiers of their presence. Fundamentally it is the skill of the instructor that makes the difference between a great or a bad day on the slopes.

"The guide is the one saving me between life and death in many ways," Tildesley explains. "If the guide is confident and can give directions and stay calm about it, then I have a lot more trust for them. But if they are unsure of themselves it can be scary." All the guides in the Adaptive Ski Program have been great, he adds.

Watching Chan and Tildesley ski together is lesson in co-operation and teamwork, but it also raises questions – for instance, how can a guide monitor his or her own progress on the technical runs while keeping up and instructing at the same time? Chan says it all comes down to experience.

"I’ve been skiing and instructing so long that I don’t really worry about myself and just try to be his eyes – that’s my job, just to look out in front of him."

Tildesley says feeling the bumps with his skis and poles also helps him get down the mountain safely – and most importantly, quickly.

"I go incredibly fast, faster than most people on the mountain, I’ve been told," he enthuses. "I estimate over 30 km/h when I’m really going for it, and that’s my favourite part of skiing."

Putting some more technical ski runs under his belt is another key ambition.

"To me the Couloir Extreme ended up being just another run because it’s not as big as people make it out to be," he says.

Tildesley says his ultimate dream is to represent Canada again at the Paralympics – not just at the summer Games, but also in the winter competition in the downhill, super G, GS and slalom. However, he realizes achieving this goal relies as much on his guide as his own abilities.

"I’ve been told I’m in the top half percentile of blind skiers, good enough to learn how to race," he says. "But it means finding someone willing to work with me and spend the time in training and preparation. Split seconds really matter and if you are short of a gate or miss a gate, there goes your time and chances."

In the meantime, Tildesley says he is working on getting his weight forward over his skis to improve his technique – just like any regular skier. He believes not enough disabled people take up the opportunities that exist to learn to ski and hopes that word gets out, because skiing means freedom.

"Just putting on those skis, grabbing the poles and being told where to go, just going for it, and flying. It’s an amazing feeling and hard to describe, but I think anyone that’s skied fast on nice groomed runs on a sunny day will know it’s a wonderful experience." He pauses and grins.

"Plus most of the instructors are young women at the Adaptive Ski Program, so that’s another reason I like it."