Sam Cook Chronicle: Eye Problems Don’t Slow This Ski Rider Down

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They were moving at breakneck speed, tackling the drop, the trolling skier riding close to the skier’s tail in front of him. Pressing on the two skiers from behind, a column of other runners moved just as quickly.

And then I heard Jason Kask from Duluth, the lead skier, yell over his shoulder as the pair sped through a tight turn.

“The left! The left! The left! The left!” cried Kask.

It was only then that I realized what I was seeing. Kask served as a guide for following skier Max Nelson, 15, of Mahtomedi, Minn., An excellent high school skier who also suffers from severe visual impairment.

Nelson was competing in the CXC Junior National Qualifying Races at Spirit Mountain on December 14-15. I happened to be stationed along the trail as a volunteer.

It is one thing to watch such an event on television. It was another to witness it from the edge of a trail, to listen to the skis scratching on the snow, to watch the skiers find their position as they advanced along the 5 kilometer course ( 3.1 miles). And imagine what had to be required of both a visually impaired skier and his guide.

“He must have a lot of confidence,” Kask said. “And he’s very tenacious and courageous. … That he can ski so aggressively is amazing.

Kask and Nelson had completed several trials together, learning to work as a team, Kask said. At times in the race, he said, he felt he was holding Nelson back.

“He walked on my skis every now and then,” Kask said. “Once he said, ‘Go on! “”

Kask, a former ski racer from Duluth East High School and St. Scholastica College, was also a wax technician and physiologist for the US Paralympic Nordic ski teams in Sochi, Russia, and Pyeongchang, Korea.

Nelson has had limited vision since the age of 3 due to an inherited eye disease in the family that no one knew existed before, his mother, Sharon Nelson, said.

He had retinal detachments in both eyes.

“Both of her retinas fell at the same time,” said Jon Nelson, her father. “We were walking around in the afternoon and he said, ‘Daddy, it’s dark. I see nothing.’

He has had numerous eye surgeries since then to help him maintain the low percentage of vision he has.

Nelson can read the words one at a time if the print is very large, his parents said. He only sees with his right eye, and what he sees is limited. He has many blind spots, so he has to move his head to find his “sweet spot,” his mother said. He is studying braille so that he can read if he loses the sight he has now.

“He doesn’t really have any vision other than a blurry image from 4 feet away,” said Jon Nelson.

Still, Max maintains a B average at school. And he skis like the wind. He finished 26th out of 30 skiers in his age group in the Spirit Mountain race.

“He loves sports,” said his father. “He was on the team in seventh year and is now their No.1 skier.”

“Maxy’s skiing is more important than just doing something he’s passionate about,” said Sharon Nelson. “Skiing is his way of showing the world not to feel pity for not seeing well, but to be inspired and to know that he sees the world more clearly than most of us.

Kask and Nelson handled this demanding turn perfectly during the race at Spirit Mountain and immediately accelerated. I was amazed. I stood up and watched their colorful racing suits flash through the maple trees until they disappeared into the woods.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Contact him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.


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