Mia Zutter competes in standing skiing at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympics.
Mia Zutter hasn’t given up on the idea of qualifying again for the Paralympic Winter Games, but it’s not a goal she’s focused on at the moment.
Perhaps in a few years, though.
As Zutter put it, things “just kind of fell apart” for her — but not in a negative way. Her interests simply shifted, and she got back into running after getting over an illness that prevented her from skiing long distances two winters ago.
“I think taking this short break that I have from skiing has been monumental in the longevity of me loving this sport just because the [post-Paralympic] blues are a thing,” Zutter said. “I didn’t realize how mentally tough it would be to try to adjust home after doing something so crazy, and I’m still working through a lot of that.”
Zutter was age 18 when her freshman year of college was interrupted so she could compete in cross-country skiing at the PyeongChang 2018 Games. It was both a dream come true and a whirlwind of emotions for her.
Zutter, who’s visually impaired, finished eighth in 15-kilometer cross-country skiing and ninth in 7.5K cross-country skiing in PyeongChang. She skis with help from a personal guide who stays in front of her and directs her around the course with verbal cues.
Zutter was 12 when she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which is an inherited disorder of the retina that affects young people. She still has her peripheral vision and light perception through the center of her eyes.
She said her vision is now like looking through sea glass or a fogged bottle.
Three years after her diagnosis, Zutter was new to Para Nordic skiing and serving as a volunteer at the 2015 IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships in Cable, Wisconsin. At the time, she couldn’t imagine herself competing at such a high level.
“I was just a volunteer, but I got to see a professional visually impaired ski race. And I just was like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool. There’s no way (I could do that), though,’” Zutter said. “Like I didn’t want to get my hopes up in a sense and really dive in at that point.
“I was just so in awe of everybody who was skiing. So that memory sticks pretty clearly with me in my Paralympic journey.”
Zutter had perfect vision until she was 11 years old. She had competed in figure skating while growing up, but as her vision started to decline, she worried constantly about running into other skaters on the ice.
Since she’s close to her older sister, Natalie, Zutter switched her focus to running because her sister — who doesn’t have Stargardt disease — was a runner.
The Central Cross Country Ski Association learned about Zutter from an article about her as a runner and invited her to try Nordic skiing.
“My sophomore year of high school, during my cross-country season, my coaches were just kind of like, ‘There are these people and they want to meet you to talk about skiing,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘No, absolutely not. I’m a runner. I don’t want to ski.’ I was a little brat.”
Zutter said she felt a sense of freedom when she finally went Nordic skiing for the first time at Minocqua Winter Park in Wisconsin. She wasn’t tethered to a guide by a band attached to her wrist like when she competed in cross-country running.
“I was like, ‘How am I going to have these (ski) poles and be connected to someone?’” Zutter said. “And then I realized that we aren’t connected in any way, me and the guide, and I loved that.
“I was kind of craving that sense of independence and just getting to be my own moving force in competition. It was kind of freeing in a way to have a guide that didn’t have to be attached to me.”
Zutter quickly picked up Nordic skiing.
In early 2018, she was attending a Central Cross Country Ski Association fundraiser in Madison, Wisconsin, when she learned she had made the U.S. ski team for the PyeongChang Winter Games.
Zutter is now a senior at the College of Saint Scholastica, where she has competed in cross-country running and skiing. She’s scheduled to soon to graduate with a psychology degree.
Zutter said she had planned to attempt to qualify for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. However, with everything that has gone on in her life over the past few years, she has decided to hold off on the Paralympics for now.
During her sophomore year of college, Zutter was unable to race and had trouble simply walking to class because of an illness. She said she never got an exact answer on what was causing her to feel fatigued.
“Every time I would try to get out and ski, I would just get 1K in and get gassed like to the point of falling asleep,” Zutter said. “I was so tired.”
Zutter said she’s looking ahead to competing in the 2026 Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. The layoff is already renewing her interest in the sport.
“Taking this break has really kind of brought back that hunger to want to get back out there,” Zutter said.