I got my first pair of skis for my second birthday, but since it was April, I spent the next six months sliding on the living room carpet, waiting for snow. By the time it came, the kick and glide of Nordic skiing had become another gait for me, as natural as walking or running. I never had to think about it. I just skied.
Fifteen years later, icy snow screeches under my skis as I try to slow down. Turning around I see Marta, my 16-year-old Polish friend skidding down the hill. Marta and I are classmates at an international high school in Norway committed to having a significant number of students who are physically disabled and from refugee camps and SOS Children’s Villages.
By any measure the skiing conditions are rough: It had rained the day before and frozen overnight. Marta isn’t entirely comfortable on her skis yet – it is only her third time skiing. “Prawo, PRAWO!” I call to her in Polish, signaling her to move to the right. She giggles a little at my mispronunciation, slips and then regains her focus. The conditions and her inexperience are daunting enough, but there is another thing: Marta can’t see her skis or the snow under her feet.
Marta is not completely blind. If I ski in front of her, she can just make out the contrast between my black parka and tights and the white snow. She can’t see when a hill goes up or down – to her it is all part of the sea of white. She wasn’t born blind, but her eyesight has progressively deteriorated and will, one day, be gone entirely. Amazingly though, when we ski, instead of shying away from the hills or corners she can’t see, she strides confidently along just behind me. It was unnerving at first, because I’d never experienced so much trust or felt so much responsibility.
Until now, skiing was primarily a solo activity for me. I loved racing on a team, but the real magic of skiing happened when I was alone, deep in the woods, pushing myself up a mountain. I had never tried to talk about how to ski; it was all muscle memory for me. But before I could teach Marta how to kick and glide, negotiate turns and navigate down hills, I needed to describe it all to her. Learning to talk about skiing turned out to be the hardest part of what we were aiming to do: getting Marta ready for Ridderrennet, the world’s largest ski festival for disabled athletes.
Each year, the Ridderrennet festival is held in the iconic Norwegian ski town of Beitostølen, nestled high in the mountains and dotted by Norwegian hytter (small wooden ski cabins) and giant statues of trolls. During the week of Ridderrennet, hundreds of athletes – vision and mobility impaired – as well as hundreds of guides, descend for a week of training, picnics, dancing and racing. Marta was set to compete in three races: the giant slalom, biathlon and a five-kilometer ski race. Each of these races was part of what is called, in English, “The Knight’s Race.” We had only a few months to prepare. We needed them.
We skied once a week, sometimes in the mountains above our school, sometimes in powder and sometimes in tracks. From the start, Marta had a joyful toughness that made her fearless, enthusiastic and able to trust her body as she propelled it through space. And from the start, without meaning to, I’d hold my breath each time she skied down a steep hill. Marta never paused. “What does it look like ahead?” she would ask, and then ski off before I had time to answer. I’d been training to trust my legs and my body on snow for years, but for her it came in an instant.
The day of the five-kilometer race at Ridderrennet was beautiful spring skiing, warm and sunny. After Marta’s start, I skied down the trail to cheer on other friends, thinking it would take her at least 40 minutes to complete the course, given her practice race times. Less than half an hour later, I saw a young skier charging toward the finish line, blue hat bobbing, a hundred meters ahead of her sighted guide. Marta confidently pushed herself toward the cheering crowd at the finish line. She was hitting her stride perfectly and then suddenly, feeling that the tracks were flat, she switched instinctively to a seamless double pole – something I’d never taught her. I looked at my watch: 27 minutes.
I was never a terrifically fast racer, but I know what it feels like to cross the finish line on a good day, thrusting your boot across millimeters ahead of the skier behind you and feeling triumphant, proud, exhilarated and exhausted. As Marta charged to the finish line – sweating, beaming and with her eyes tightly shut – my heart was pounding. It was her best race ever.