Skiing is believing at Soldier Hollow | ParkRecord.com

Skiing is believing at Soldier Hollow

Christopher Kamrani, The Park Record

MIDWAY — She does her best to hold steady, her ski poles planted in the firm snow. Liz Graves must listen in order to learn, in order not to fall.

"Forward, keep moving forward," the voice says.

Graves continues to work her way up the meek hill, her form gradually improving with each puncture of the snow, her arms and legs and mind working in unison.

"Keep it going," the voice continues. "You’ve got it down."

Graves comes to the end of the short road. The ridges on the track fade away, eventually turning into a flat surface. The 25-year-old Louisiana native takes a deep breath, cracks a smile and plants her ski poles into the field of white.

"OK, good," the voice says. "Now we’ve got to work on your form. We’ve got to work on not crossing up your tips."

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Graves slowly turns around and prepares to enter the practice-track grooves once again at the Soldier Hollow cross-country ski resort. Liz Graves is wearing a headband, black sunglasses and a purple jacket. She is learning to cross-country ski this week.

She’s also blind.

"I’ve never even played in the snow much," she said. "Haven’t skied before this.

"If I lived around here, I’d definitely do this instead of the gym. I like how it’s a full-body workout. I think I’m getting the hang of it. It’s very enjoyable."

The voice pitches in. The voice belongs to Jean Larson, who is Graves’ cross-country ski guide. Larson has been associated with Ski for Light for 28 years. A resident of Spokane, Wash., she was introduced to the organization in the early 1980s.

You can see her attachment to the job that has taken her all over the country, teaching visually-impaired people the ins and outs of cross-country skiing. Her blue sweater is plastered with aging Ski for Light patches.

"My favorite part is teaching brand-new people how to ski," she said. "That’s my passion."

A passion for learning and a willingness to try — to be unafraid of falling — was on full display this week in Midway as Ski for Light, a nonprofit organization founded in 1975, made its return to the Wasatch Back for the third time in the last seven years. About 250 to 300 people have been preparing to compete at Saturday’s Ski for Light International race event.

According to http://www.sfl.org , "The goal of the organization is to teach blind, visually- and mobility-impaired adults how to cross-country ski in an atmosphere that encourages participants to recognize that they can usually accomplish much more, both on the snow and back home in everyday life, than others may have told them was possible."

Andrea Faust, a cross-country ski coach for Team Soldier Hollow who has been associated with the resort for the last seven years, said each time Ski for Light returns to Midway for its week-long event, there are new lessons learned. Faust said this year some students at the Soldier Hollow charter school learned what it would be like to cross-country ski without sight. She said students recently simulated classic skating with a guide, seeing nothing.

"They loved it," she said. "We’re lucky to have gotten (Ski for Light) three times."

Rich Milsteadt, a race/rally coordinator with Ski for Light, said Soldier Hollow is one of the organization’s favorite venues. Milsteadt said some of the skiers who have made the trek to Utah have mastered the art of the sport, while others, like Liz Graves, are just absorbing that initial taste.

"It’s a week-long adventure," he said. "This is about getting people outside and active and giving them that opportunity."

This week of introductory courses and practice will culminate in today’s race, which Milsteadt said is the cherry on top for those associated with the event. The course at Soldier Hollow is a specialized, double-track, side-by-side 5K course.

Faust said, in the past, Ski for Light had a 10K track to compete on, but due to this year’s bleak snowfall, the staff at Soldier Hollow had to get creative and make a new 5K loop specialized for the skiers and their guides.

Saturday’s race will be categorized by visual acuity and mobility impairment, as well as by ages and gender. In all, there will be 14 different categories, according to Milsteadt.

"There’s a language involved in communicating with our skiers," he said. "It’s special."

Milsteadt said roughly seven or eight countries are represented at this week’s Ski for Light International event. He said the organization was formed in Norway and was introduced to the U.S. in 1975. Each year, Ski for Light travels to places as Colorado, South Dakota, Washington, Michigan and New England.

When describing her introductory exercises to skiers, Jean Larson beamed.

"First thing we learn is how to get up," she said, mimicking the proper stances. "Then we do the stepping exercises, to get the feel of these long, skinny skis on peoples’ feet. The next command is to sit. If the guide says sit, they must fall to the ground."

"I want to be able to do the 5K and finish it and get better," Graves said. "I mostly did this because I wanted more varied experiences."

As Larson watched, Graves stuck both her ski poles in the snow, ready to set out on the track at Soldier Hollow for the first time, with her guide by her side.

"Here we go," the voice said.