KILLINGTON — Born blind and with a taste for adrenaline, it was only a matter of time before Sara Mornis discovered skiing.
“I started skiing when I was in elementary school, first grade, and I had a teacher; I think she worked at the Reading Elementary School as an assistant aide, but she also taught me how to ski,” said Mornis.
Mornis is now 23 and attends Northern State University at Johnson, where she majors in a combination of English, psychology and alternative medicine. Last Saturday, she planned to attend the 13th annual United States Association of Blind Athletes Winter Festival. It’s not for the first time.
“I think I’ve been to all of the events except maybe one or two,” Mornis said last week.
She credits her former teacher, Ann Ackley, with teaching her how to ski, and the Reading Elementary School winter programs.
“Every winter since I was 6 years old I went skiing, so it was definitely a new hobby that I picked up,” she said. “Starting out, I was kind of young, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I’m a thrill-seeker. I enjoy this kind of stuff. I love roller coasters and all that, so this fits into my thrill-seeking.”
Mornis said she’s skied Ascutney Mountain, Pico, Killington Mountain and Sugarbush, and would like to try Stowe Mountain next.
Being blind, Mornis gets some help from trained guides. These people will ski ahead of her, or near her, and call out when she should turn, which direction and when to stop. It’s a thrill, she said, skiing down the slopes, and she only really gets nervous if the trail is new to her, or especially narrow.
“Sometimes it also depends on the ski guide, a lot of them are really trained, and it’s really easy to work with them, but sometimes if I hear any nervousness or fear in their voice, that might trigger something in me,” she said.
Vermont Adaptive is the group providing the guides.
“Vermont Adaptive is a nationally recognized organization that provides sports and recreation for people with disabilities, and we do it throughout the state daily, year-round,” said Kim Jackson, director of communications for Vermont Adaptive. “We’re at Pico Mountain in the winter, but we’re also at Sugarbush, Bolton Valley, Suicide Six, and then in the summer we’re up on the Burlington waterfront. We have a large program up there, as well as Chittenden Reservoir, Castleton Rail Trail, the Waterbury Reservoir and that area, we’re just all over the place in the summer.”
Vermont Adaptive worked with the United States Association of Blind Athletes at the Winter Ski Festival at Pico.
“This particular weekend we’ll have about 35 athletes that are blind or visually impaired, and for each person, they’ll have anywhere between three and five guides with them,” said Jackson. “It’s a pretty big weekend for us, because there’s over 100 people in our program space, and our volunteer instructors, they’re either a lead guide, so they’re be the one calling out the commands of which way to turn and that sort of thing, and we also have shadows and blockers, they ski around the person to keep some space between them and other people skiing on the mountain.”
While last weekend’s event was for skiers who are blind or visually impaired, Vermont Adaptive works with people who have any kind of disability.
“It could be a physical disability, somebody in a wheelchair; it could be emotional-behavioral, cognitive, kids with autism, folks that might have cerebral palsy, it runs the gamut what we serve as far as disabilities, and then we just adapt each individual lesson to that person,” said Jackson.
Volunteers for the winter programs go through an intense training program in November and December, she said. They learn some general information about disabilities, and can then specialize.
“It’s really whatever the person wants it to be, if a person has never skied before, it’s learning to ski,” she said. “We have one fellow who comes up from Boston and he was a lifelong skier and has gradually lost his sight over the years ... so we reintroduced him to skiing a few years ago as somebody with a visual impairment versus somebody with sight.”