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"Legally Blind" High School Students Tackle Skiing at Snowmass

Many Roaring Fork Valley residents know what it’s like to get on skis for the first time. It can be a wobbly, nerve-wracking experience. Now, imagine doing that without being able to see very well. This week, eight high school students from Tennessee are skiing at Snowmass for the first time and they’re labeled legally blind. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Ski instructor Kathy Comerford encourages two new students on the ski slopes. Both are considered legally blind and they’re skiing this week for the first time. It’s a bluebird day and the groomed runs are smooth.

This is day three on skis at Snowmass for 17-year-old Michael Ward.

"We are working on perfecting our turns, completing our turns, keeping control of our skis while we turn and not falling!"

He’s a student at the Tennessee School for the Blind.

"I have nystagmus, amblyopia and myopia. It’s basically a lazy eye syndrome and it only lets you see nearsighted," he says.

Ward has trouble seeing off into the distance so, to get down the hill he closely trails guides wearing bright green coats.

High school seniors from the Tennessee School for the Blind have been coming to Snowmass every winter for over a decade. The non profit Challenge Aspen hosts the group and provides travel, food, lodging and ski lessons while they’re here.

Allison Nannemann teaches at the School for the Blind and she leads the senior ski trip.

"We’ve got a few goals when we bring students here, one is to teach them how to ski. It’s something that most of them think they can never do and a lot of people think they can never do, which is simply not true," she says.

Picking up the new skill comes at a crucial time. Most of the students are preparing to be independent for the first time and go to college or get a job. Nannemann says learning to ski is empowering and it gives the students that sense of independence.

"They’ve lived, most of them, such sheltered lives, this is an opportunity for them to spread their wings, to make this trip what they want it to be, to determine their schedule and their activities, to advocate for themselves and their needs, particularly on the slopes: how much verbal direction do they need? How little? How much physical direction? How little?"

Back on the slopes, instructor Kathy Comerford gives some direction. She’s impressed with how far the students have come.

"They’re looking awesome. We’re kind of at a point where they just need a lot of mileage to reinforce what they’ve learned and that’s where we’re at right now. And, this is just a warm up run to feel the skis underneath them," Comerford says.

Teenager Michael Ward and his classmates push off confidently with a new skill under their belt. About 120 visually impaired high school seniors have learned to ski through Challenge Aspen’s program at Snowmass since 2001.

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