February 19

Legally blind skier from Benton to tackle Sochi slopes

Lindsay Ball will compete, even though she has a leg injury, in the Paralympics as the highest-ranked U.S. competitor in the giant slalom.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Skiing can be a difficult sport in the best of circumstances, but imagine schussing down the snowy slopes with a torn leg ligament and a fractured tibia.

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BLIND SKIER: Lindsay Ball, left, of Benton, trains with ski guide Diane Barras recently while preparing to compete in the Paralympics in Sochi in March.

Contributed photo

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THERAPY: Lindsay Ball of Benton performs physical therapy to prepare for ski racing in Sochi in March. In January, Ball fell down while skiing and tore her ACL, requiring four weeks of intense physical therapy to give her a chance to compete.

Contributed photo

Paralympic support

Lindsay Ball of Benton is traveling to Sochi in March to compete in a Paralympics alpine skiing competition. Her trip has been funded by a combination of support from the U.S. Paralympic team, fundraising and donations received through her website, www.lindsayballb1.com.

Now imagine doing it in Sochi, Russia, with the whole world watching.

Finally, imagine doing it blindfolded.

That’s what Lindsay Ball of Benton, a 22-year-old University of Maine at Farmington student, will face in March.

When Ball skis, it’s in complete and total darkness.

She navigates the course with the help of a guide, Diane Barras, of Bethel, who skis in front of Ball and calls directions with a microphone. The microphone is rigged to a backpack with a speaker in it that broadcasts Barras’s directions, enabling Ball to not only hear when and how to turn, but to also hear the pitch and depth of Barras’s voice.

Ball said the pair have developed a strong bond that is vital to their performance.

“I need to trust that she will keep me safe,” she said. “And she needs to trust that I am trusting her.”

Leveling the field

Before visually impaired athletes can take part in a Paralympics alpine skiing competition, they are categorized by level of blindness. A B3 athlete is legally blind, but has some vision, enough to read a newspaper that is less than four inches from the end of one’s nose. Ball, who has been legally blind since birth, can’t do that.

A B2 can read a newspaper that is no more than 1.6 inches away. Ball can’t do that, either.

Ball’s assessments show that she is a B1 skier, the same category as those who are completely blind. She has only a smidgen of vision.

“I can see light and dark. I have light perception,” Ball said. “I can sometimes see shapes and shadows but I don’t have any details of what they may be. A person or a chair is just a kind of blob.”

In order to level the playing field between Ball and other athletes who have no vision at all, she will wear a pair of blackout goggles while skiing. Ball said that was difficult to do at first because she is used to sensing light levels.

“We blacked out my goggles, at first piece by piece,” she said. For Ball, it was not only unnerving, but it was also nauseating.

For the first time in her life, she developed motion sickness while skiing, a sensation she likened to the feeling one gets as a roller coaster at an amusement park takes a steep plunge.

For the most part, with practice, she has learned to control the nausea, or at least ignore it. Quitting the sport she loved, though, never crossed her mind.

Getting ready

Ball has been training competitively for the Paralympics for five years.

Her parents first got her into skiing when she was 6 because they wanted her to participate in a sport. They got help from Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation, which offers sporting opportunities to people with physical disabilities.

Today, Ball’s favored event is the Giant Slalom, in which competitors race down a 1,000-foot slope, navigating around a set of about 50 gates, obstacles that force them to change direction dozens of times.

Precision is the key to success.

“Basically, you want to take the tightest line to the gates and the cleanest line, and that will make you the fastest,” Ball said.

Giant Slalom is well balanced between speed and control. The number and spacing of the gates means skiers can go faster than they would in a slalom event, but have to make more turns than they would in downhill skiing.

(Continued on page 2)

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