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Teamwork, Trust and Fun: Visually Impaired Cross-Country Ski Racing

Imagine the thrill of ski racing on skis that are only one-and-a-quarter-inch wide with no metal edge.  Now, try to imagine doing it as a visually impaired (VI) cross-country (also known as “Nordic”) ski racer.  And finally, imagine doing it as the racer’s guide.  John Kusko (VI athlete) and Don Hickman (the guide) did just that at the U. S. Cross Country Ski National Championships at Soldier Hollow, Utah (the site of the 2002 Winter Olympic Nordic and Para-Nordic events), from January 1-4, 2024.  

John, a former Paralympian (U.S. Paralympic Goal Ball team member at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020), has this to say about the sport:

“Cross-country ski racing as a blind or visually impaired athlete really brings a team mentality to the sport. I have to work extremely closely with my guide to make sure our communication is basically perfect. In the sprint race that is even more important because we have such a short amount of time so any mistakes are really magnified.” 

Don, a volunteer guide and coach with the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team and Board President of Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports, went on to say:

“Of course I love the excitement of the race.  For me though, it’s really about removing barriers for people with disabilities so that they too can experience life-changing sports.”  

At the 1.5-kilometer sprint race on January 4th, Don skied in front of John, and provided him constant verbal queues about the course and the snow while they raced on a narrow strip of hard snow.  Not only did Don have to be a skilled ski racer, he had to be able to plan and describe the course to John.  “John is right; it’s a team sport with absolute trust developed between the two of us.  I must see the snow for him and communicate to him what to do and when to do it. It’s such a thrill when it all comes together, and its slightly terrifying when it doesn’t,” Don said, with a smile on his face.  

As the guide, Don constantly verbalizes the slope up and down of the course, which direction and how sharply to turn, which skiing technique to use, when to slow down and when to speed up, while periodically looking back to make sure John is still with him and looking ahead to try to pass the next racer.  

Don and John are active athletes in the U. S. Paralympic Nordic Team Development program.  “It is exciting to see growth in all the classes of Para Nordic, said BethAnn Chamberlain, U. S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Development Coach. “We have so much more room to grow, but I am very excited how far we have come. The athletes make it all come together.”

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When asked about cross-country skiing in general, John said: “Skiing with Don as my guide is truly a pleasure because his joy in cross country is so infectious! I have really learned a lot from him in my couple of opportunities to ski with him.”  Ogden Valley Adaptive is partnered with Ogden Nordic in Liberty, Utah to bring adaptive cross-country skiing to our area.  Don is the lead instructor. 

We offer much more than VI skiing.  Contact us today if you wish to enjoy the peace, quiet and thrill of adaptive cross-country skiing.
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Don is a volunteer guide and coach with the U. S. Paralympic Nordic team, a Professional Ski Instructor of America, certified level 2 cross-country ski instructor, and President of the Board of Trustees of Ogden Valley Adaptive. When he’s not cross-country skiing, you’ll find him cranking turns at Snowbasin or Powder Mountain resorts.  

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