Magic to last a lifetime: 40 years of SFL

Ski for Light celebrates 40 years of empowerment for visually and mobility impaired skiers

Photos: Ski for Light / Facebook In Ski for Light, skiers with visual or mobility impairments are paired with guides, and big smiles result.

Photo: Ski for Light / Facebook
In Ski for Light, skiers with visual or mobility impairments are paired with guides, and big smiles result.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

A 93-year old cross-country skier. A cyclist severely injured by a car last August who recovered enough to do his 21st New York City Marathon in December, this time with the help of a wheelchair, then spent a week cross-country skiing in January. A newcomer to Nordic skiing who never managed over one kilometer during her introductory week but pushed herself for over three hours to finish the 5K rally on her last day.

Charlie Wirth, Harald Vik, and Teresa Stockton each participated in the 2015 Ski for Light Week January 25-February 1. All three are totally blind; Vik is also deaf. They were among the 260 people gathered at Snow Mountain Ranch, Colorado, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a program designed to teach cross-country skiing to visually and mobility impaired individuals.

Each is a testimony to the Ski for Light motto, “If I can do this, I can do anything.” And each of their stories offers in a nutshell the nitty-gritty of what this program does to change lives.

Charlie lost his wife twenty years ago, but found new purpose when he came to Ski for Light.

Vik, who sees sports as a way out of a potentially isolated world, wants people to realize that “even with a handicap like mine, it is possible to have a great life.” Teresa refused to give up when offered the option of riding back from the 3K mark.

Photo: Ski for Light / Facebook Guides pair up with visually impaired skiers.

Photo: Ski for Light / Facebook
Guides pair up with visually impaired skiers.

Erling Stordahl, who founded the parent program of Ski for Light in Norway in 1964, would be proud of all three. Blind himself, Stordahl wanted to share with other visually impaired persons the pleasure he derived from Nordic skiing. The Ridderrenn, or Knight’s Race, which he established, celebrated 50 years in 2014.

Norwegian-born Olav Pedersen, who emigrated at midlife to the U.S., wanted to bring such a program to his new country. With Stordahl’s help plus aid from Lions Clubs and Sons of Norway, the first Ski for Light took place at Breckenridge, Colorado, in 1975.
Forty years later, this program, sustained entirely by volunteers without a single paid professional, has offered a week of training in cross-county skiing every year to visually and mobility impaired people. Its attraction is so powerful that about two dozen folks attending the anniversary had been to half or more of those 40 weeks.

Ski for Light has had only nine presidents since its inception. Bud Keith, now skiing in the clouds with two other past presidents, filled this leadership role for nine years. Another telling example of the enduring commitment people make to Ski For Light is that of those six still living, five were present for the 2015 event; four of them skied all week, including current president Scott McCall.

Photo: Ski for Light / Facebook Participants say farewell to 2015’s week, while being menaced by a yeti.

Photo: Ski for Light / Facebook
Participants say farewell to 2015’s week, while being menaced by a yeti.

Both guides and participants pay their own way with some scholarship help available to a few. Other funding comes from both the corporate world and from groups like Sons of Norway, which has also provided many of the guides, particularly in the early years. But the fundraising, publicity, and training are all done gratis by an ever-longer list of volunteers.

Why would a guide take vacation time from work and pay to have a week cross-country skiing with someone who can’t see? Or who has mobility issues?

Because Ski For Light is far more than a sports program.

According to Leslee Lane Hoyum, who has guided often since her first event in 1976, served as secretary on the Ski For Light Board, and attended the 40th Anniversary, “Ski for Light now and forever lives in my heart.”

It’s not a new view; in 1985 she shared that “Ski for Light offers magic that will last a lifetime. Magic is what I feel. Ski For Light has a snowball effect: the more involved you become, the more friends and experiences envelop you as you move through the magic.”

Ski for Light’s overarching principle is working with, not for, persons with disabilities. And then there’s past Ski for Light President Bjarne Eikevik’s simple directive, “Take a good thing and make it better.”

Sharing meals, early morning exercises, and evening interest sessions, plus the ever-popular Norway Night and Talent Night all promote interaction beyond the ski trail. This year’s Norway Night featured its native Harald Vik, 71, speaking on determination.

There were 15 Norwegians in this year’s delegation. Norway was also represented by Ivar Engan, Counselor, Trade & Industrial Affairs, Norwegian Embassy.

The 2015 event boasted great weather with blue skies and plenty of snow, excellent tracks, and delicious food. These elements create “happy campers” at Ski for Light, and Snow Mountain Ranch had all three, leading to its ranking as one of the best Ski for Light weeks ever. Veteran tracksetter Leif Andol, 85, appearing as a guide for the 37th time, was especially pleased about the deeper, easier tracks.

Due to surplus guides this year, he shared duties with dedicated Ski for Lighter Dale Severson, a few years behind Leif in age. Together they guided Deb Weise, 62, to a gold medal for women 59 and over in the 5K Rally. She made the best estimate of her time to complete the 5K course.

Once racing was the only option on the final day, but now for the Olav Pedersen Race and Rally, participants may choose either a 10K race or a 5K rally, each with several categories based on age, sex, and level of disability.

Awards are given in both race and rally for divisions within each. This year’s top speed in the 10K race was achieved by Walter Raineri, 45:46, followed by Jerry King, 52:50, and third was Anne Mette Bredahl, Vice President of the Ridderrenn organization, 55:59, the top female skier across all 10K divisions.

Charlie Wirth, 93, made the best estimate of his time for men in the 5K rally, giving him a first place. Teresa Stockton received special recognition as well, a spur-of-the-moment Courage Award to acknowledge her perseverance. (A full heartfelt description of Teresa’s journey by David Fisichella can be read at www.facebook.com/SkiforLight/posts/898822226829470.)

The 40th anniversary song written by Jim Salestrom, a Colorado native who also composed a 10th anniversary song, has in the new lyrics this phrase: “Everybody knows when love is shared, it grows.”

But perhaps past president Bud Keith, blinded about age 10 by fireworks exploding in a can, said it best. He believed you could boil down the magic of Ski For Light to one word: Love.

Elaborating, he explained back in 1985 when writing about the first 10 years, “The warmth, trust, and love we create shouldn’t be limited to only a week or two each year. Let us take whatever we have learned and share it with the rest of the world.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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