Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Chris Williamson Skis to the Top of his Sport

For most athletes, it's a real challenge to get to the top of their sport. For Chris Williamson, the challenge, and the joy, come from getting to the top. . . and then finding the fastest route back down.

Chris is a member of the Canadian Disabled Alpine Ski Team. In 2000 and again in 2001, Chris was so accomplished at skiing his way down mountains that he twice won the Disabled Alpine World Cup Championship. What does this title mean? It means Chris and his skiing skills were at the peak of perfection. Some say that it's lonely at the top. Maybe it is. But as Chris will tell you, there's a certain satisfaction that comes with success. "There is something to be said about the ability to stand-up and say that you are the best blind-skier in the world."

Just how does someone go about becoming the best blind skier in the world? Unless you are Tiger Woods, trained from birth to excel, most people find a sport they like and practice, practice, and practice at it until they become proficient. Chris' development as a skier is a mixture of both methods. His parents are avid skiers who wanted to share their favorite sport with their son. So they fitted then three-year-old Chris with skis and introduced him to the thrills of skiing over white powder. Over the years, Chris tried other sports (for a time he was seduced by speed-skating) but he always returned to skiing.

Chris is confident that his early introduction to skiing helped him grow to love and excel at the sport. "A great deal of skiing is based on reflexes," Chris says. "When one starts skiing at an early age, there is little or no fear involved. The skills that assist me as a skier are coordination, the desire and drive to win, no fear, the pure enjoyment of going fast, and the commitment to the sport."

Chris was born with no vision in his right eye. He had macular degeneration due to toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a single-celled parasite, and virtually no retina because of the scarring. By the age of 6, the scarring had affected his left retina too, leaving him with only peripheral vision. The condition eventually stabilized, and Chris still has peripheral vision in his left eye. He registered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind at the age of 6.

Growing up, Chris skied the mountains surrounding his native Edmonton, Alberta and actively participated in judo, speed-skating, football, basketball, baseball and hockey. He chased a dream of becoming a champion speed skater until a broken leg bone forced him to reconsider. That bad break helped Chris focus on his studies, and he graduated from the university of Manitoba with a degree in economics. But the bug to compete had not completely left him. Shortly after graduation, Chris returned to the slopes. In 1997 he began competing in and winning local events.

Chris was asked to join Ontario Skiing for the Disabled, a regional team of disabled skiers who compete in events across Canada. He quickly began dominating these competitions. News of his strong skills and determination to excel brought Chris to the attention of the Canadian Disabled Alpine Ski Team, Canada's national team for disabled skiers. In 1999, Chris was invited to join the team.

Chris races as a visually impaired B-3 classification racer. His classification is one of 13 created by Alpine Skiing for the Disabled, the world-wide body that hosts, regulates and promotes alpine skiing events, such as the World Cup for the Disabled.

When Chris skis, he is accompanied by a sighted guide who, depending on the event, either leads or follows Chris. During Chris' run for the 2001 World Cup Championship, his guide was Bill Harriott, himself a disabled skier and veteran member of the CDAST team. The duo wear a two-way radio system so they can communicate with each other the entire run. Bill warns of bumps or ruts or ice, and Chris tells Bill to speed up or slow down.

There are four events in Alpine Skiing, and Chris provides an excellent overview of each. "The most famous race in Alpine Skiing is the Downhill. This race covers the longest distance with the fewest turns and the skier achieves the fastest speeds. The second fastest race, covering only a slightly shorter distance and using a few additional turns is the Super Giant Slalom (better known as the Super G). The other two races are Giant Slalom (GS) and Slalom and known as the technical Alpine events. The GS is a faster race than the Slalom and the racer goes between gates (two poles held together with a cloth panel in between them) in a zig-zag fashion down the face of the mountain. In Slalom the gates consist of singular poles and most skiers while skiing around the poles knock them down using their shins, arms and occasionally even their heads.

In a regular competition, there are two training runs for the Downhill, followed by the Downhill race. This is followed by a Super G race and then a GS which consists of two runs down two different courses. Lastly, there is a Slalom which is also made up of two separate runs down two separate courses. All these events take place over five to six days, averaging one event per day."

During the 2001 World Cup finals, Chris found himself in a tough spot. He would have to win the Giant Slalom outright in order to win the World Cup Championship, the award that goes to the best overall skier based on points awarded for a skier's finishes. During competition, all visually impaired skiers compete against each other. Because some skiers are blind while others may have limited sight, skier's times are adjusted so that every athlete competes at the same level.

Chris was trailing a Spanish skier by twenty points going into the giant slalom. After the first run, he was in the lead, but only by a few tenths of a second. In the second run, Chris skied beautifully, posting a time of 2:19:68, nearly two seconds faster than his closest rival. The win earned Chris 40 cup points, more than enough to overtake the leader and earn Chris his second consecutive World Cup Championship.

So what is the secret to becoming the best blind skier in the world? "It's difficult to answer what the secret to winning is," says Chris. "Winning is based on getting down the hill faster than anyone else. I believe that it takes a combination of determination to be the best and a 'no fear' attitude. Some of what helps me to be good is my coordination and my positive attitude. And my experience. I have now skied for 26 years!"

His desire to be the best is partly what drives Chris to keep in excellent physical shape. Chris trains year-round, going to the gym three to five times each week. "I do weights as well as interval work-outs on a stationary bike. I also do sport-related exercises at home and ride on a stationary bike as often as I can."

During the off-season, Chris enjoys playing baseball with his church league, mountain biking and basketball. He also works as a landscaper, a job that ensures he walks as many as 20 miles a day.

During the season, which lasts from November through April, Chris works hard to keep his mind and body in peak racing condition. In between races, for example, Chris trains to keep his muscles warmed up and keeps himself mentally psyched for the next race. "I listen to my CD player to psyche myself up for the competition," he says. "I also spend a fair bit of time ensuring that my equipment is in perfect racing condition."

His skis have to be sharpened and waxed before every race and before every training day. His speed skis (the pair he uses for Downhill and Super G) require waxing a few times during the off-season as well.

He advises people who are interested in skiing competitively that they may have to make many sacrifices. There are the long hours spent training and maintaining equipment. and then there's the travel. "The hardest part is the time away from home," Chris explains. "I am away for at least three months of the year and this obviously puts a part of my life on hold."

On the positive side, Chris gets the opportunity to ski the best mountains in the world. "And the camaraderie of teammates is great," he says. "It's like having a family away from your family. Most of our waking time is spent all together and, although our minds are mainly on the racing, we still have time to socialize and have fun."

The Canadian Disabled Alpine Ski Team provides financial, travel and accommodation assistance to its member athletes. It is an honor to be chosen to one's national team because it indicates that the athlete has reached the top of his or her class. Team members are selected each year by their coaches and are selected based on their finishes in national and international competitions, their ski function class, physical condition and commitment to their sport. Each member must attend training camp in the Fall: the team is trained by a professional coach.

CDAST coaches and team members participate and host mini-camps at various locations throughout Canada. This helps introduce the sport to individuals who may have never considered skiing on a competitive level. When Chris retires from competitive skiing, he hopes to become a coach -- "hopefully even the national team coach."

Would you like to learn to ski?
Chris' advice to young people to "go for it. It is a lot of fun and a great way to spend winter outdoors rather than cooped up inside."

Visit the following website for more information about blind skiing and to follow the results of your favorite blind skiers as they compete in World or national Alpine Skiing competitions.

American Blind Skiing Foundation: The ABSF, based in Illinois, provides educational skiing programs for blind or visually impaired persons. Visit the ABSF web site to learn about skiing events and for membership info.

View pictures of Chris Williamson on the slopes:

(Photos courtesy of Chris Williamson. All rights reserved.)

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