'Handicap' race -- a special cross-country thrill on skis

"We're going to make it," Jimmy declared with certainty as he struggled up out of the snow and brushed off the powder from his fall. He stepped back into the parallel tracks made for his cross-country skis and headed for the finish line of the strenuous three-mile race. Determination and concentration lined his face, but soon dissolved into a delighted grin as he climbed a hill and slid gracefully down the other side.

"I got that turkey!," Jimmy shouted, and strode off once again for the finish line.

Jimmy is 58 years old and blind. He was my partner in the 1979 Ski for Light National in Squaw Valley, Calif. We practiced cross- country skiing together all week in the clear California sun, readying ourselves, along with 150 other pairs of blind-and-sighted skiers, for the big race at the end of the week.

Jimmy had never skied before and never really planned to. When he lost his vision, however, he went from his home in San Fernando to the Western Regional Blind Center at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, and while at the rehabilitation program there he was one of five persons chosen to take part in the week-long Ski for Light event.

Having done my internship as a mobility instructor at the VA the previous summer, I was assigned as one of the guides for the group. A strong bond of kinship and a sense of teamwork, pride, and affection developed among all of us and has remained ever since.

Jimmy worked hard every day that week to master the skis, which at first seemed like a pair of five-foot banana peels. He learned fast, and taught me more about persistence than I have ever seemed to teach myself. His trust in following my guidance, especially on first experiencing sliding down the hills, moved me continually. Even Jimmy could not believe how much he learned in a week.

During the race on the last day, 300 skiers stretched out over a waiting white valley and its hillsides, racing more against personal limits than one another. Jimmy was absolutely an inspiration to me that day. He knew that many of the other skiers were younger than he. No matter. Simply, he would do his best. Dignity carved his face and posture as we set out on the course.

He moved out in a good rhythm, clambered up some steep hills, fell and dug in his poles to get up immediately. His spirits were high the first two miles. The last mile, though, was heading back to the ski center against a cold blowing wind that made it hard even to shout instructions. Jimmy began to tire and fall more frequently. But he did not hesitate to pull himself up each time.

As we began to near the finish, I, too, was feeling the weariness of fighting the wind and shouting to communicate. However, 100 yards or so from the end of the course, we began to hear people shouting, cheering. Jimmy grinned, gained strength from their encouragement, and began to lenghten his stride. I couldn't help but grin, too. Jimmy truly began to race toward the cheering voices. The remaining ground disappeared under our skis and we glided under the finish line.

Tears of joy ran down Jimmy's cheeks as he hugged the crowd of well-wishers. Tears appeared in my eyes, too. He had made it. Jimmy may not have come in first, but he was totally a winner. He had done more than he thought he could do. And he would take that expansion home with him.

The joy, the clear love and pride I felt that day, the satisfaction at having a small part in creating the opportunity for someone to experience what Jimmy experienced that week, are beyond my current ability to express. Simply, it served to reinforce strongly a previous conviction that challenging recreational activities that have the capacity to extend "disabled" persons, both physically and mentally, deserve a status beyond "luxury." There are many Jimmys out there waiting for the opportunity to teach us about seeing and about courage and joy. I hope they are allowed the chance to do so.

Thank you, Jimmy and VA crew, for an unforgettable week! I look forward to further shared extensions!

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