Being the eyes

By Caryn Maconi | Feb. 11, 2014, 3 p.m. (ET)
Staci Mannella with guide Kim Seevers
Alpine skier Staci Mannella, who will make her Paralympic debut in Sochi, Russia, is visually impaired. She competes with guide Kim Seevers.

For athletes with visual impairments, guides are an irreplaceable component of daily training and racing.

Finding the right one can be challenging, but in the end, a guide that is the perfect fit can mean the difference between the podium and fourth place.

From skiing to cycling to running, every athlete/guide relationship is different, and each takes a level of trust and connectedness that’s difficult to find anywhere else in sport.

Take cyclist Clark Rachfal and pilot Dave Swanson, the tandem duo who are so in sync, they can pedal a two-person bike at up to 60 miles per hour through harrowing turns and crowded pelotons without blinking an eye.

Or take guide Rolland Slade, who can, in one word, communicate to his partner David Brown, a world medalist sprinter, exactly where the two are on the track, all while at full speed in a 200-meter race.

Or 17-year-old alpine skier Staci Mannella, who’s been following the orange vest of her 56-year-old guide Kim Seevers since childhood.  

There’s swimmer/triathlete Brad Snyder and his brother Russell, who can match Brad’s stride foot-for-foot in a 100-meter dash or guide him through throngs of runners in a marathon.

And there’s world champion paratriathlete and runner Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt, whose “Ivonne Guiding 101” is so effective, she'll trust a brand new guide from a local running club to take her through a race – provided the guide can run the pace Mosquera-Schmidt is aiming for.

The relationships and strategies vary, but the goal for each of these athletes is the same – to find the partner who will enable them to reach their highest potential in Paralympic sport.  

The trust

For most athletes, racing blind can be scary and stressful – especially when first learning. After all, “logical” isn't the first word that comes to mind when considering racing a 5k through downtown streets, in a pack of other runners, without any vision. The first step, then, is to find a guide who can effectively keep the athlete away from hazards in both training and racing environments.

"Because safety is such a huge aspect of what we’re doing, trust is the biggest issue, so there's got to be a reason for the athlete to trust the guide," said Seevers, who will compete with Mannella at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games next month. "You have to think about, 'Okay, when I go over this drop, what is that going to do to Staci if I don’t tell her it's coming?'"

And, of course, the athlete must be willing to hand over that trust.

Navy veteran Brad Snyder, who lost in vision in an improvised explosive device blast in Sept. 2011, earned a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in swimming and is now training for triathlons. Because Snyder is just a couple years removed from his accident, he remembers the early struggles of adjusting to blindness.

"Everything’s scary at first, especially running in a race where people are bumping into you and there are changes in terrain," Snyder said. "The only person I've run super aggressively with is my brother Russ, and he’s a rock star at guiding. One, he says all the right things. Two, he’s just a good runner. If I'm running at my fullest capacity, it's only his 80 percent, so it works out well for us."

Nowadays, Snyder says he will train with anyone who is interested in learning to guide, though he’s more selective in choosing a guide for racing.

"Barring a curb or a significant mistake, I'll be able to catch most things and then kind of work through it with the guide," Snyder said. "You have my full trust until you mess it up. Then I'll start to be a little more conservative, and I'll coach the guide from there."

That trust has to be mutual, too. Swanson, a sighted pilot for para-cyclist Clark Rachfal, must trust Clark to follow his movements and respond to his decisions on the bike. Otherwise, at the speeds the two travel, it would be easy to lose control.

"If I didn't trust Clark to follow me as well as he does, there's no way I would be able to push it as hard as I can through the corners," Swanson said. "And when everything goes pear-shaped, he knows that his best bet is to follow me so that I'm not trying to fight him while I'm fighting to keep the bike up. It's one thing to say that, but with as well as he does that, I have the utmost respect for the trust he puts in me each and every day on the bike."

Rachfal’s outlook on the trust issue is more straightforward.

"Until Dave leans how to crash the bike and not hurt himself, I think I’m okay," Rachfal said. "It’s in his best interest to put us in a position to win and be safe, and it’s in my best interest to follow and not second guess at 50 miles per hour, because I don’t want to upset the balance and the control."

The communication

The most important quality in a successful guide, regardless of the sport, is communication. Each athlete/guide pair has a different method of communicating, and some prefer to say more than others.

"On snow, if (Kim) says something, I usually know exactly what she’s talking about," Mannella said of her longtime guide. "She knows what to tell me and what not to tell me. She knows what’s best for me to know and some things I maybe shouldn't know, so that kind of works well. When you've skied with someone for as long as we've skied together, we know each other pretty well."

Sometimes, words aren't even necessary.

"We've been together for six years, and we have such a synergy that she knows what all my noises mean,” Seevers said of racing with Mannella. "If something happens and I can’t get the words out fast enough, 90 percent of the time she knows what my noises are telling her and she doesn't usually need to say anything."

When an athlete and guide have a strong connection, even body language can communicate volumes.

"So much of our communication has become non-verbal," Swanson said. "He knows what it means when I make certain body motions or move the bike a certain way, with few or no words spoken. I also know what his movements mean, and how the ‘feel’ of the bike changes in different circumstances."

Brown, a visually-impaired track runner who’s found the ultimate guide Slade, also a competitive able-bodied sprinter, knows how something as simple as mismatched pacing can make communication nearly impossible.

"I just want to let every blind person know that if you’re going to use a guide, he must be faster than you," Brown said, "Because he has to be able to communicate and not be tired. I've had many guide runners where we were in a race, and they’re all out of breath. You also have to make sure your guide runner is in shape, because you can't be dragging him."

The friendships

Some athlete/guide pairs grow naturally out of friendships or family ties, as with Snyder and his brother Russ. 

Other times, friendships grow out of the experience of training together for so many hours and placing so much trust in each other’s hands.

"There are times when I’m stressed, angry, in pain, and I just want to go home because it’s cold and raining, but (Clark) is, too. We’re in this together," Swanson said. "If you have that respect, I think you’ll end up being friends, because you’re going through all the same trauma. Every time I've been in a race, he’s been there also."

For Mosquera-Schmidt, who trains with a variety of guides throughout the season, racing is a way to make new friends who share a common love for the sport.

“I've found that running and triathlon have been such great ways to connect the able-bodied and disabled communities together,” said Mosquera-Schmidt, who competed at the 2013 world championships for both paratriathlon and track and field. “I've met people from all backgrounds – filmmakers, artists, doctors, lawyers, freelancers – and we’re all doing something we love and sharing in the sport.”

And when a duo finally does reach that podium spot, it’s the shared experience that makes it that much more meaningful, as both athlete and guide receive medals.

"You’re Robin to the Batman. You’re the eyes, but you’re training day in day out knowing this person has a dream," Slade said of Brown, the runner he guides. “To see (David) succeed, to see what he’s overcome and the effort he puts forth day in and day out … To help somebody achieve a dream like that, that’s what keeps me doing it."