‘Guiding Miss Melinda’ Reflections from A Blind Cross-Country Skier

 by Melinda Hollands

(Editor’s Note: Ski for Light hosted a reception at ACB’s 2017 convention in Sparks, Nev.  Melinda joined the all-volunteer board of directors of Ski for Light this year, and she is the new chairwoman of its Visually Impaired Participant Recruitment Committee. The article first appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of “Grand Traverse Woman Magazine.”)
“How cool is that!” I said to myself when I first heard about Ski for Light, an international week-long event — in a different U.S. city each year — that matches visually and physically impaired classic cross country skiers with experienced sighted guides. “I enjoy skiing, traveling and socializing… this must be for me!”
I was all set to attend the SFL in Alaska in 2014 with friends. But then life happened. My beloved dad developed lymphoma. My need to be with him far outweighed my need to be skiing, and I was blessed to be with him when he died.
The next year I rallied my friends again to go to SFL in Granby, Colo. This time, life happened to them. One by one they dropped out. There I was, all set to go and no one to go with. If only I could see enough to travel by myself again like I used to when my vision was better. Now I clutch my white cane and cling to my husband.
Since the age of 7, I have been legally blind due to a rare retinal degenerative disease called Stargardt’s disease. Legally blind is a category that means someone’s visual acuity is less than 20/200, and that they have limited field of vision. My visual impairment consists of blind spots in my retina, mostly in the center of my vision. I have some vision in my peripheral line of sight, which helps me detect larger objects and varying shades, but does not help with tasks such as reading or driving.
Despite my condition, I have enjoyed both cross-country and downhill skiing my whole life. But going on a ski trip alone seemed impossible. “What a shame that I cannot go,” I thought. “Or can I?”
What did that SFL flyer say about accomplishing things you never thought were possible? What about my self-confidence and inner strength, which have carried me through so many obstacles in my life thus far? What about faith in God who makes all things possible? What about all that my parents taught me about working past barriers?  If I were practicing what I preached, would it be possible for me to board a plane with a connection at O’Hare and make it to the resort in Colorado? And then what? I would be there, but with a group of strangers! And I was going to ski through the Rocky Mountains and trust an unknown guide to lead me around cliffs and away from moose? What was I thinking?
Well, I was thinking that this was a calling for me. It was a life lesson in continuing to be who I want to be. It was trusting that God would provide the courage. It was honoring my dad. Once I realized those things, my fears subsided and I got ready to go.
Every “down dog” pose I did at Yoga for Health Education helped get me in shape for my adventure. And I was warmly welcomed into VASA SheSkis, a program for female skiers of every age and ability. Every Wednesday, a different SheSkis member happily volunteered to “guide Miss Melinda” through Timber Ridge with encouragement and enthusiasm.
Finally, it was time for my trip. My husband, Ian, guided me to the plane gateway, and then handed me off to a flight attendant. Flying alone was simple — I was like a baton in a relay, just handed off from person to person until I got where I was going.  At Denver International Airport, a volunteer led me to baggage claim. We followed white canes and guide dogs to the group of SFL participants. A van ride took us to our resort, where another volunteer led me to my room … where I had two messages on my room phone already! I was invited to two parties before dinner!
There was socializing in the hot tub and evening entertainment. But most of all, there was skiing. The groomers at the resort made two parallel tracks in the snow, one for skiers and one for guides. Skier and guides were carefully matched based on levels of experience.
My guide, Bob, had been attending SFL for 22 years. His challenge was to manage skiing up and down hills, while still monitoring my safety. The relationship between guides and skiers cannot be described in words, but only in an amazing bond of mutual respect and appreciation.
Though I’d come just for the experience, instead of signing up for the non-competitive 5K rally, my competitive edge emerged and I signed up for the 10K race on the last day. I had never raced that distance before. Race day dawned. I could not understand why everyone was so hyped up! Skiers were contemplating what to have for breakfast, how much water to drink or not drink, and my guide kept telling me to stay calm. I had not realized that I was apparently supposed to be nervous!
The atmosphere was different from the other days. Local residents had gathered to watch. Families had flown in from afar to witness. When my guide put a race number vest around my neck, I knew this was serious business. Instead of everyone taking off at their own pace, today we lined up two by two, just like Noah’s Ark. There we were, hundreds of people all on skis, no leader dogs, no white canes, no wheelchairs, just people sharing an amazing sport to wrap up a week of indescribable camaraderie. The loudspeaker crackled. As if the crowd was not emotional enough, they played the national anthems of each country represented. That’s when I lost it: “How am I supposed to ski when I am crying?”
My husband and daughter were at the start cheering me on. I was concentrating on their voices and missed when the loudspeaker shouted, “Number 45 … Melinda Hollands … from Traverse City, Michigan!” We were off! Soon we were beyond the noise and into the valley. Water stops were short, but necessary, as the warm Colorado sun shone bright and strong in the 9,000-foot altitude of the Rockies. At one point, there came a big downhill with the sharp right curve at the bottom, where I had fallen a few days before. Bob reminded me to bend my knees. I took a deep breath, said a prayer, and I admit, I even closed my eyes. But before I knew it I was coasting around the next curve. No falls today!
Then came the big climb upward … not the gradual ascent like at the beginning. This one was not a Michigan sand dune; this one was a Rocky Mountain! Bob and I were breathing heavily, the sounds falling into rhythm. Finally, I caught the faint sound of cheering up ahead in the distance. I was tired by now. I wanted to be done. I strained to distinguish Ian’s voice, as I knew he had volunteered to be at the finish line. Bob encouraged me to finish strong. I drew energy from somewhere deep within me. Then I heard the familiar voice saying, “C’mon honey … you are almost here!” That was followed by a big bear hug from Ian. Immediately, my daughter was at my side. I bent over panting while she placed my participant medal around my neck. “Way to go, Mom!”
Wow! What a moment! I did it! And I finished 15 minutes faster than earlier in the week. I was brimming with satisfaction that I had accomplished so many challenges. My exhilaration was not only about the race, but also about the journey of life I was on every day. I was grateful to God and my dad in heaven, who clearly told me not to worry about details like flying all by myself.
This trip reminded me: Life is what you make of your own situation. It is about having the confidence to do things despite barriers that are frightening.
If you are age 18 or older, legally blind or mobility impaired, you can be a skier. If you are an intermediate level sighted skier, you could be a guide. If you want to join the fun and help out, SFL needs volunteers.
Each year, Ski for Light holds an International Week for both novice and experienced cross-country skiers in the U.S. This winter they will stay at the site of the 2017 ACB convention, the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nev., and they will ski at the Tahoe Donner Ski Area in Truckee, Calif. To learn more about the event, which will take place from Jan. 21-28, 2018, visit www.sfl.org.