Skiing can be a difficult sport in the best of circumstances, but imagine schussing down the snowy slopes with a torn leg ligament and a fractured tibia.
Now imagine doing it in Sochi, Russia, with the whole world watching.
Finally, imagine doing it blindfolded.
That’s what Lindsay Ball of Benton, a 22-year-old University of Maine at Farmington student, will face in March.
When Ball skis, it’s in complete and total darkness.
She navigates the course with the help of a guide, Diane Barras, of Bethel, who skis in front of Ball and calls directions with a microphone. The microphone is rigged to a backpack with a speaker in it that broadcasts Barras’s directions, enabling Ball to not only hear when and how to turn, but to also hear the pitch and depth of Barras’s voice.
Ball said the pair have developed a strong bond that is vital to their performance.
“I need to trust that she will keep me safe,” she said. “And she needs to trust that I am trusting her.”
Leveling the field
Before visually impaired athletes can take part in a Paralympics alpine skiing competition, they are categorized by level of blindness. A B3 athlete is legally blind, but has some vision, enough to read a newspaper that is less than four inches from the end of one’s nose. Ball, who has been legally blind since birth, can’t do that.
A B2 can read a newspaper that is no more than 1.6 inches away. Ball can’t do that, either.
Ball’s assessments show that she is a B1 skier, the same category as those who are completely blind. She has only a smidgen of vision.
“I can see light and dark. I have light perception,” Ball said. “I can sometimes see shapes and shadows but I don’t have any details of what they may be. A person or a chair is just a kind of blob.”
In order to level the playing field between Ball and other athletes who have no vision at all, she will wear a pair of blackout goggles while skiing. Ball said that was difficult to do at first because she is used to sensing light levels.
“We blacked out my goggles, at first piece by piece,” she said. For Ball, it was not only unnerving, but it was also nauseating.
For the first time in her life, she developed motion sickness while skiing, a sensation she likened to the feeling one gets as a roller coaster at an amusement park takes a steep plunge.
For the most part, with practice, she has learned to control the nausea, or at least ignore it. Quitting the sport she loved, though, never crossed her mind.
Ball has been training competitively for the Paralympics for five years.
Her parents first got her into skiing when she was 6 because they wanted her to participate in a sport. They got help from Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation, which offers sporting opportunities to people with physical disabilities.
Today, Ball’s favored event is the Giant Slalom, in which competitors race down a 1,000-foot slope, navigating around a set of about 50 gates, obstacles that force them to change direction dozens of times.
Precision is the key to success.
“Basically, you want to take the tightest line to the gates and the cleanest line, and that will make you the fastest,” Ball said.
Giant Slalom is well balanced between speed and control. The number and spacing of the gates means skiers can go faster than they would in a slalom event, but have to make more turns than they would in downhill skiing.
The event is just right for Ball. Over the past five years, she has climbed in the world rankings, which are weighted to balance the differences between B1, B2 and B3 skiers.
She won the 2012 Paralympics U.S. Championship.
When Ball went to Winter Park, Colo., in December for a few months of intense pre-Sochi training, she was ranked seventh in the world, the only U.S. skier to be in the top eight. She is also the only B1 skier to be ranked in the top 20, meaning she will be the only woman hurtling down the slopes with no visual signals at all to help her navigate.
When she arrived in Colorado on Dec. 27 to begin her final season of training, Ball had big plans. According to her schedule, she was to leave Colorado on Feb. 28, headed to Munich for processing. On March 2, she was scheduled to travel to Sochi in advance of the Paralympic opening ceremonies on March 7. Continued training in Sochi would take her to the big day of competition, March 16.
But all those plans came crashing down two days after she arrived. During her first day of training on the slopes, she fell and felt her knee pop.
“It was kind of a freak thing,” she said. “I’ve fallen the way I fell thousands of times before.”
In the blink of an eye, she saw five years of training taken from her.
Rescue workers loaded her into a toboggan and took her to a medical center, where an X-ray showed a leg fracture, common in cases in which a certain knee ligament has torn.
The tears she shed were not from the physical pain. “When the ER doctor told me that she didn’t think that Sochi was realistic, I got really cranky at that time because I’d just worked five years to get it. And I wanted it,” she said.
A few days later, an orthopedic surgeon at the Steadman Clinic in nearby Vail confirmed the diagnosis after an MRI scan showed Ball had completely torn her ACL.
Typically, doctors recommend athletes stop competing until they’ve undergone surgery to repair their damaged ligament.
But Ball begged.
“The doctor agreed that I was coming up on the race of a lifetime,” she said. “He basically gave me the shot to try to ski without it.”
The doctor’s permission led to four weeks of intense physical therapy, during which Ball said she tried to strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee, so that she would have more support.
A month later, on Jan. 29, she tentatively went back out on the slopes and said her training has gone well since then, considering her injury.
Still, when Ball competes in Sochi, in addition to being the only woman wearing blackout goggles, she may also be the only woman skiing with a knee brace on.
The setbacks are physical but Ball said the solution to overcoming them is mental. Just as she has learned to trust her guide, she now has to learn to trust her own physical abilities as well.
“I have to have confidence in my strength. Confidence in my knee. Confidence in my brace,” she said. “I have to be putting myself in a good place when I’m on the hill.”
“If I can get my skiing back to where it was in December,” she said, “I think I can compete for a medal.”