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by Sara Bennett
Brampton, Ontario, Canada
Norway, a European nation of approximately five million people, is often credited with inventing and spreading modern cross-country skiing and skiing for the blind and partially sighted to North America and beyond. The Nordic form of skiing was used for transportation, hunting and trapping in Europe and Asia hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and later for these same activities in the New World.
With the development of various types of ski bindings in Norway and other European countries over the last couple of centuries, skiing has evolved into a recreational pastime and sport. In fact, the word "ski" derives from the Norwegian language. Appropriately, in 1964 Norway was also the birthplace of the Ridderrennet (the Knight's race), a program that teaches cross-country skiing to people with vision loss. The driving force behind this initiative was Erling Stordahl, a blind musician. The idea came to him when military vehicles on an army exercise passed, leaving deep, wide tracks in the snow, and he jumped into one of them to try to ski in it. Afterwards, he reportedly said, "It was an experience I will never forget! I followed the tracks to the end, approximately 10 km. I could ski without fear of colliding with anything. I felt like I had regained part of my eyesight. I could stop whenever I liked to enjoy the wonderful surroundings. I felt like a part of nature. My immediate reaction was that I must share this wonderful experience with my visually impaired friends."
The concept of skiing in snow tracks was expanded by using two sets of tracks side by side, one for the blind skier and one for a skiing guide to shout out commands and information about turns, hills etc. Today, the program is held in Beitostølen, Norway, each year and attracts more than 1,000 blind and disabled skiers and guides from more than a dozen countries. In 2008, the Ridderrennet celebrates its 45th anniversary from March 30 to April 6.
Norway soon exported its annual program of teaching cross-country skiing (its national sport) to blind and partially sighted people to North America, thanks to Norwegian emigrants who were familiar with the Ridderrennet and to Sons of Norway, a fraternal benefit society that has provided much-needed guides and financial support over the years to Ski for Light in both the United States and Canada. Programs in the United States and Canada began in 1975 and 1978 respectively. For information about SFL in the United States, see the article, "DIALOGUE Interviews Bud Keith of Ski for Light," DIALOGUE, May-June 2007, available online at www.blindskills.com.
The first Canadian Ski for Light event was held in Nancy Greene Lake, British Columbia, and was a weekend program. According to its Web site, "SFL Canada now has a six-day event, which incorporates lots of skiing, training sessions, social evenings (e.g. relay races, waxing and guiding clinics, talent and entertainment nights), and culminates with the race itself on the Saturday, followed by the awards banquet and dance that evening. Local and other dignitaries are invited." As for location, Barry Nelson, president of SFL Canada, says, "Ski for Light is an outreach program of Sons of Norway in Canada, and there are only Sons of Norway Lodges in the three Western Provinces; we only hold the event in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. We endeavor to hold it at a different site each year, however, in order to make more people aware of this unique program." The Canadian event focuses on recreational skiing, with the premise that blind, partially sighted and mobility-impaired skiers can learn to cross-country ski successfully if paired with a sighted, experienced skier to act as instructor and guide after being primed at the outset of the event how best to teach and communicate with someone who is blind or disabled. Typically, SFL Canada hosts 45 skiers and their guides annually, with many returning year after year to hone skills, enjoy nature or challenge themselves physically. Nelson adds, "We started sending one male and one female skier to Norway to the Ridderrennet as of 2006. We have had skiers attend our event from the United States, Japan, England, Australia and Norway. Many skiers continue to ski in their own communities but outside of the SFL umbrella." This is definitely in keeping with the truth of the Ski for Light motto, "If I can do this, I can do anything." The Ski for Light Canada program is held in the first couple of months of the year, with February 4-10, 2008 marking its 30th year. Vernon, British Columbia was the site.
Asia was the next recipient of a recreational, cross-country ski program for the blind, modeled after the Ridderrennet in Norway and, by extension, Ski for Light. Toshiaki Aomatsu, a blind teacher at the National School for the Blind in Tokyo, says in the article, "The Sun Rises on Ski for Light Japan," which appeared in the SKI FOR LIGHT BULLETIN, "It was on the airplane on the way back to Tokyo after participating in the 20th SFL International in the United States that a friend and I decided to start a Ski for Light program in Japan. For the site, we chose Fukushima, which has a permanent double track for a blind skier and a guide, and is not too far from Tokyo, where most participants would come from." SFL Japan was launched January 5-8, 1996, with Aomatsu as its president. Held each year in Urabandai, Fukushima, it is a three or four day event and usually attracts about 40 participants, with about 40 percent of them being newcomers and 60 percent returnees. Says Emiko Koyama, who works at a disability-related non-governmental organization and who teaches college English classes, "I think I have attended SFL-J four times so far. I keep attending because I like the skier and guide traveling alongside each other. This gives me some independence while also enjoying conversation. The recreational nature of the program means I don't have to compete, and I can go at my own pace. I also enjoy the leisure activities the staff provides for us after dinner. They allow me to get to know other participants."
Aomatsu adds that the relatively small number of participants creates a homey atmosphere. Skiers and guides also meet their international counterparts: "Sometimes SFL Japan invites foreign exchange students who are blind to our program. We have hosted persons from Nepal, Sudan and China."
In 2003-4, Nordic Ways, in cooperation with the Norwegian Embassy and the Changchun Disabled Association, began organizing an annual event where members of China's estimated 60 million disabled population could learn and practice skiing. Usually held in the northeast city of Changchun, a 90-minute flight from Beijing and home to 370,000 disabled people, Ridderrennet China offers free facilities, equipment, training and guides to disabled participants, including those who are deaf, blind, partially sighted and mobility-impaired.
According to Cherry Chen, secretary, participation is growing. "Cross-country skiing is a very, very new sport for disabled people in China. Numbers are growing. In 2006, there were 11 foreign participants, mostly from Norway, and more than 40 Chinese participants." In addition, it looks like skiing for the disabled in China is here to stay. The Ridderrennet 2005 Report reads: "Changchun University is one of the few Chinese universities to include a school for disabled students, and 507 students are currently enrolled. In Ridderrennet China 2005, we saw students from the school trying to ski and participating in a winter sport for the first time. As a result of this year's event, the university will establish a module in cross-country skiing for their students to continue the education in different winter sports. Through this event, we are hoping to establish a tradition for skiing for the disabled in China, leading towards greater integration for a marginalized group in society, as well as good results in the Paralympic Games 2010."
When the first Ridderrennet took place in Norway in 1964, chances are Stordahl didn't expect the program he started to be the model for events not only on another continent, but on another two. By expecting that people with vision loss and other disabilities, like himself, could learn and enjoy cross-country skiing if paired one-on-one with a sighted, experienced skier acting as instructor and guide, he raised the bar for his peers around the world. Internationally, people with disabilities realized they could expect this, and more, of themselves. In effect, he expanded realistic expectations for people with disabilities, and then exported them. While he did attend the inaugural events of Ski for Light in Canada and the United States, he was unable to do likewise in Japan and China, dying in Norway on October 30, 1994. SFL Canada's Web site confirms Stordahl's contributions: "He was given a state funeral in honor of his renowned accomplishments for the visually impaired and disabled."
Ridderrennet Norway (English): www.ridderrennet.no/default.asp?page=108
Ski for Light International (United States):
Contact: Marion Elmquist: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ski for Light Canada:
Contact: Barry Nelson: email@example.com
Ski for Light Japan:
Contact: Toshiaki Aomatsu: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ridderrennet China: Nordic Ways International:
Contact: Cherry Chen: email@example.com
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