Kendall Gretsch and the rest of the field head out onto the course after a mass start for the Cross Country Open Relay event Sunday, March 18, 2018 at the Alpensia Biathlon Center at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games. Photo by Mark Reis
Robert Walsh started losing his vision at age 10, and he was legally blind by the time he was in high school.
Walsh had to stop playing baseball and hockey because of Stargardt disease, which is an inherited disorder of the retina that affects young people. He could still ski, though.
Walsh was introduced to Para Nordic skiing when his brother, Joe, who’s also visually impaired, read a newspaper article about a national championship race for athletes with impairments.
The brothers were soon competing alongside each other in the Paralympic Winter Games. As a Nordic skier, Walsh qualified for five Winter Paralympics, earning a gold medal in 1988 and a bronze in 1992.
“Someone publicized the sport, and I was fortunate enough to come across it,” said Walsh, who’s now the chairperson of the sport technical committee for World Para Nordic Skiing.
“As the sport has grown and the Paralympic movement has matured, the opportunities for athletes with an impairment to become aware of these opportunities has increased dramatically. TV broadcasts of the Paralympic Games by NBC made a huge difference.”
Nordic skiing has provided athletes with a wide range of impairments, including spinal cord injuries, vision loss and limb impairments, the opportunity to compete over the years.
Nordic skiing was included in the first Paralympic Winter Games in 1976.
In the 1980s, Ted Fay helped push the sport forward in the United States as the Nordic program director for the U.S. disabled ski team. He played a large role in the development of the U.S. Nordic skiing national team program.
Para Nordic skiing has expanded to where there are now different classes for visually impaired skiing, standing skiing and sit sitting.
“Primarily the factors that make (Nordic skiing) relatively accessible for athletes with impairments are similar to those that make it relatively accessible for people without impairments,” Walsh said. “For example, compared to alpine skiing, Nordic skiing is typically less expensive and is somewhat more flexible in terms of location, especially if you are doing it recreationally rather than competitively.”
Athletes with spinal cord injuries sit in a bucket seat attached to skis, called a sit ski, and use ski poles to propel themselves across the snow.
Meanwhile, most visually impaired skiers compete with assistance from individual guides who stay in front of them and direct them around the course with verbal cues.
This is a much better situation than when Walsh was competing in cross-country skiing races around New England as a member of the Dartmouth College ski team.
“I did not race with a guide in these competitions, and for the most part there was no category for Para Nordic (skiing),” Walsh said. “I skied for a year and a half before I managed to finish a race without crashing at least once.”
Walsh said only a small number of athletes were participating in Para Nordic skiing in the U.S. when he started in 1985. It was considered more popular in such countries as Norway.
However, Para Nordic skiing has grown in the U.S. over the past 5-8 years, according to BethAnn Chamberlain, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing development coach.
“We are still quite small, but we are growing, and even more important is we are improving,” Chamberlain said. “The athletes we have racing in the sport are more competitive as a whole than we ever have. It is really exciting.”
When Chamberlain started working with U.S. Para Nordic skiing in 2012, she said much of the funding for programming and development was earmarked for military veterans. The organization’s outreach efforts were geared toward getting veterans of all ages and abilities involved in Nordic skiing.
While veterans benefitted, Chamberlain realized U.S. Para Nordic skiing was missing out on a large group of potential skiers — young people with impairments.
As a result, U.S. Paralympics started hosting ski events and making connections with Shriners Hospitals around the country in an attempt to connect with young athletes. Athletes then got introduced to existing Nordic skiing clubs and programs.
“This has helped immensely in getting athletes (to) not only start in the sport but become a part of the community of Nordic skiing in local communities throughout the country,” Chamberlain said. “This is where I believe development can really start to happen.”
Walsh said Nordic skiing gives athletes, both with and without impairments, the chance to get outside during the wintertime and enjoy either a peaceful glide through the snow or a rigorous two-hour race.
“It is a sport that you can enjoy on a beginner, recreational level with friends and family or on the highest competitive level in the world at the Paralympics and Olympics and every possible level in between,” Chamberlain said. “The sport can be simplified and adaptive in so many different ways for just about any necessary need.
“It makes for a great sport for all and for an entire lifetime.”