Blind ambition: Sight-impaired woman helps develop skiing program for the blind at Blue Knob Resort
Lisa Hagerich who is blind does not let her visual impairment slow her down.
The active 46-year-old hiker from Mineral Point who also runs, has gone skydiving, white-water rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, and broke her own horse at age 16.
The physical therapist assistant’s goal is to run a full marathon some day and her latest endeavor has her taking to the slopes at Blue Knob All Seasons Resort.
“It’s a nuisance at times. A lot of times I completely forget I can’t see. It’s an annoyance … but it’s not something that holds me back. I just have to find another way,” she said. “I like to experience new things so when something comes along, just like with the skiing, and you feel confident with the people, I’m all for trying something new.”
Hagerich, who likes to promote an active lifestyle “and to experience life,” is helping develop an adaptive program for the visually impaired at the resort.
Hagerich was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease, at age 11. She uses a cane and a service dog to get around.
She has been skiing at the resort for about eight weeks and has progressed from the beginners slope.
Her husband, Matthew, whom she skied with when they first started dating, has just gotten back into the sport, and her daughters, Kara, 21; Morgan, 19; and Rebecca, 16, snowboard, she said.
“She doesn’t have to sit at home while they’re out doing this,” said Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped assistant director of rehabilitation Sherry Hofecker. “She can go out with them. That’s one of the most rewarding things about this.”
That was part of the motivation, Hagerich said. She was also ready to learn when she got the call from the resort to see if she would participate.
Hagerich didn’t waste much time during her first day out.
“I got on the skis right away. I worked on learning to put them on, the different commands,” she said. “They went through all the very basic stuff, which was very nice. It was definitely things I hadn’t known and something others might have skipped over. They were very thorough.”
The instructors can accommodate varying skill levels and would have gone at whatever pace she was comfortable with, she said.
“It was intimidating like when you do any thing new, but I was comfortable and trusted them right away,” Hagerich said of her instructors.
Hagerich and her husband, who also received training, skied together the first day, she said.
“It was nice because all of these years we hadn’t been doing that,” she said. “He skied blindfolded and it gave him a new understanding of my side of things and what I experience.”
As part of the training at an indoor session in Novem-ber 2011, about a dozen to 15 instructors had to lead one another around blindfolded. During an outdoor session later in the year, instructors rode the ski lift and skied blindfolded.
“It’s really a weird feeling to suddenly be blindfolded,” Cambria County Associa-tion for the Blind and Han-dicapped assistant director of rehabilitation Sherry Ho-fecker said. “You couldn’t tell whether you were on the steep or the flat part of the hill. Some people got dizzy. It was hard to tell if you were moving. You lost sensation of where you’re at.”
Blue Knob Ski Resort’s Technical Director Gerry Klimo said some instructors were afraid to guide Hage-rich because of the responsibility of keeping her from getting hurt.
Hofecker said it helps the visually impaired person to know their instructor has experienced such training.
Commands such as left or right are used, but Hagerich responded better to commands using a clock face for reference instead, Hofecker said. Training is honed to what works for any given person, Klimo said.
While skiing, an instructor wearing an orange vest with the word, “Guide,” written in black letters across the chest follows behind or on the side of the skier who wears a similar vest with the words, “Visually Impaired,” on it.
Hagerich trained with several instructor. With the slopes empty, Hagerich could do free skiing, but Hofecker continued to talk to her, she said.
“She needs to know somebody is there. You reassure her, saying, ‘You’re doing good.’ Communication is extremely important,” she said. “You have to be constantly communicating. You save the small talk for the lift. Everything while you’re skiing has to do with what she’s doing on her skis.”
Also, key is the guide’s voice projection over the natural noises of the slopes, she said.
“When she can’t hear you she can lose her sense of where she is,” Hofecker said.
At the end of sessions the instructors would get feedback from Hagerich and her husband, Klimo said.
“We’re all learning different things than we expected to learn. Each time we go, as I progress, we find there’s different things we need to alter,” Hagerich said. “We are figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I’m working along with the instructors in perfecting the technique.”
For example, as they skied the race course they found she needed a bit more accurate direction so they developed the command, “Back off,” to let her know to if she’s gone too far left or right.
“She’s an amazing person,” Hofecker said of Hage-rich. She is “an incredible individual,” and a “quick learner,” Klimo said.
Hofecker said they would like to get others interested in utilizing the program.
Snowsports Director Tim Corle said all Professional Ski Instructors of America skiing programs including the adaptive program require the same skills – balance, ability to tip the equipment on its edge, rotary and pressure control.
He said they’d like to extend the program and get others such as people who might have a prosthetic out on the slopes.
“This sport’s good for everybody,” he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.