Welcome to the family

Ski for Light celebrates its 45th anniversary with open arms to newcomers

Ski for Light

Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
The 2020 Ski for Light medal, the 45th edition in the United States.

Andrea Goddard
Spokane, Wash.

It was Ski for Light’s 45th anniversary in the United States, and they opened their arms to welcome newcomers to the family.

“I had never even touched a ski pole until arriving in Wyoming!”

Ida Behreni enthusiastically recounts the experience of being on skis for the first time at Ski for Light’s annual ski week in Casper, Wyo., Feb. 9-16.

A blind engineer from Bayonne, N.J., she explained her choice to leap into the unknown: “I volunteer as a mentor in a program which empowers blind high school students to seek higher education and meaningful employment. Annemarie Cook (a veteran visually impaired SFLer) gave a talk about recreational activities she enjoys and brought up this wonderful program. I was immediately enthralled, looked it up and applied.”

That zest for fun would see Behreni through unexpected challenges and triumphs on the rigorous, windy trails of McMurray Mountain Park Adventure Center, where more than 250 skiers and their guides pushed as much powder as possible, given a rather rocky start to a week that still managed to be uplifting and empowering.

Ski for Light

Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
First time blind skier Hannah Chadwick and guide Julie Coppens placed second in their division—following more experienced skiers.

“Normally, my arms are attached to either a cane, my guide dog, or someone’s arm,” Behreni said. “But it was magical to me to be able to glide on my own and feel the wind with nothing but my own balance to keep me upright. There are all these little muscles near your foot and ankle that need to be strengthened in order to keep balance. I found it difficult to do that without stiffening up.

“It was an incredible feeling to fall and get back up again. I remember the first time I glided down a small hill without falling or panicking. The hill had a slight bend, and the incline was rather slow. But, up until that point, I had always stiffened up and lost control going down even the smallest of bunny hills. But that time, I took a deep breath, listened to my guide’s (Glenn Beachy) instructions, and enjoyed the ride. It was incredible. It was a small accomplishment. I will always remember it.”

Ski for Light

Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
First-time skier Audrey Farnum of Oklahoma City receives the Jan Haug Award—gift of skis, boots and poles—for being an enthusiastic first timer.

First-time VIP (visually impaired participant), Audrey Farnum, had been aware of SFL for years. A chance conversation at the U.S. Rowing Masters Championships would begin her next big adventure. A blind tax attorney in Oklahoma City, Farnum also loves to row competitively with other blind rowers. One day, she raced against veteran rower and SFL VIP Melinda Hollands. After a couple months trading e-mails, Farnum decided to take the “plunge” to SFL.

“I enjoyed the puzzle of taking something and trying to get better at it,” she said. “I approached it the way I did rowing 10 years ago. As the week went on, I gained better balance and more control. There would be moments where I’d think, ‘This is super cool.’ Then, I’d fall for no reason. Still, even when I was frustrated, I was having fun.”

The week was meaningful for new guides as well.

Steve Brinker, a motorcycle-loving guide with the Michigan regional SFL and a first-timer at Casper, recalls:  “Getting up this one hill with my visually impaired skier, we ran into a sit skier and their guide, really digging in for all they were worth to climb that same hill. Seeing their effort and struggle, knowing we were all on that hill together, and celebrating when we’d all reached the top— that moment epitomized my experience of the whole week. I like doing things outside my comfort zone. It’s not about my helping a blind person. It’s about my getting to know someone who happens to be blind.”

There was adversity off the trails, including Day 5, when no one skied due to high winds and snow. But there’s no group of people anywhere more capable of “making lemonade” than SFLers. SFL’s resourceful planning committee immediately shifted into high gear and arranged alternate activities, including a trip to a much-enjoyed archeological museum that allowed their blind visitors to tactilely explore fossils and other artifacts.

Everyone was excited—and saddened—on Race Day, the last chance to ski. For Farnum, it symbolized the adversity and triumphs of the week.

“The first lap was horrendous, and I kept falling,” she related. “On a really steep hill, I kept needing to side-step up it after falling down and sliding backward repeatedly. I skied so much better on the second lap in places I’d fallen or struggled to snow plow the first time. We finished, there was a lot of good communication and teamwork (with guide Sonja Elmquist) to get it done, even when things were frustrating.”

Every skier and guide received raucous and heartfelt rounds of applause from the group as they finished the race.

Following the rally, the fun ended with the traditional closing banquet and awards ceremony. Farnum received the Jan Haug Award—a gift of skis, boots and poles for being an enthusiastic first timer. Judy Dixon (a veteran VIP who’s served in several, vital capacities in the running of SFL for over 40 of its 45 years) bestowed a new award this year – the Event Chair’s Award, given to Bob Hartt, the week’s transportation coordinator.

After the banquet, there was celebratory dancing. The previous night was Norway Night, featuring the singing of blind and deaf Norwegian Harald Vik, 77, and the annual tradition of some of the Norwegian attendees telling the stories of the Ridderrenn and the start of SFL.

“Everybody was so cool and welcoming,” said Farnum. “A great bunch of people. It was a perfect storm of insanity that turned out to be a total blast!”

This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.