Kyle Robidoux wondered to himself if he should really be doing this.
It wasn’t so much that the course was intimidating, even for a novice ski racer like Robidoux, applying nearly 30 years of skiing experience into this new aspect of the sport. But maybe he didn’t belong in the starting gate of this particular race. He could see the course just fine, conditions were in good shape, and still, he felt as if he were taking a spot from somebody more deserving and in need of being here.
Still, when it was time, he pushed off, and made his initial turn into the first gate on the course.
“I had no idea that gate was there and I hit it front-on,’’ Robidoux said.
Robidoux tells this story as he reached for a cup of coffee that he knows is on the table in front of him, but can’t see the lid in order to drink it. He’s taken the bus to this coffee shop in the Longwood neighborhood of Boston, walked here on his own with the use of a waking stick, but is only aware of a small circumference of what’s ahead of him.
He is, by all accounts, blind.
“I get on the bus with my cane, and people get up and I sit down,’’ he said. “Then I take out my phone, or take out the newspaper, and I can just feel people like, ‘What’s going on here? Something is odd.’ I’ve had people ask are you faking it.’’
Retinitis pigmentosa is a degenerative eye disease that the 40-year-old Robidoux was diagnosed with when he was 11. It gradually impacts your rods and cones, and affects the retina’s ability to respond to light. According to www.blindness.org, “most people with RP are legally blind by age 40, with a central visual field of less than 20 degrees in diameter.’’ An estimated 100,000 people in the U.S. have the disease.
“If you’re looking at something, I see about 3-5 percent of what you see, and it’s very, very tunnel vision,’’ said Robidoux, who lives in the South End with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. “So if you’re looking at running or skiing, or trying to eat, my field is very limited. Luckily, knock on wood, I’m still very lucky that my vision is corrected to 20-40. So, the usable vision I have, I can still read, I can still use my phone for the most part. I can still read a computer screen. It’s very confusing for people.’’
Robidoux was a multi-sport athlete growing up in Sanford, Maine, but the biggest impact from the loss of his eyesight has always been the inability to play baseball, his favorite sport. It was baseball that also hinted to Robidoux that his vision was starting to go during high school, when it might taken an extra couple seconds to find the ball at the backstop, or tracking a ball in the dirt.
“As my daughter is starting to play, I can play catch with her, but she’s got to be like 30 feet away in order for me to track the ball and pick it up,’’ he said. “So doing it in short toss doesn’t really work out.’’
He had already quit football because as a linebacker, it became increasingly more difficult to track the ball, particularly during night games. He’d hoped to play college baseball, but that wasn’t a safe prospect with his eyesight starting to deteriorate.
By 19, he was deemed legally blind. Doctors expected him to completely lose his eyesight within a few more years.
But there was always skiing for Robidoux, a sport he took up the same year as his diagnosis, the same one that doctors had suggested even back then would be a logical one to pursue for somebody who would ultimately lose all his eyesight. By the following season, he and his family had season passes at Sunday River. By the time he was in college at Westfield State, he dropped out for a year, perhaps to take advantage of what might have been his final seasons of vision.
He lived at the Newry, Maine ski resort, working as a chef at Bumps Pub, and lived at the top of White Cap Lodge in resident housing. He was your typical ski bum. Just one that was slowly becoming blinder by the day.
Then a few years later, it got worse.
“I couldn’t ski to my ability,’’ Robidoux said. “I have always been a cautious skier because of my vision, so for me skiing became much more social. Go with friends, ski behind my wife. It became less enjoyable from a natural, on-the-snow ski experience, and quite frankly, mentally frustrating because I could no longer ski to my ability.’’
It was until he started working for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired as the Director of Volunteer Services in 2013 that he even became aware of guides for blind runners (Robidoux had run marathons by himself with deteriorating vision), and, by association, for skiers as well.
“Last year, I went to a ski weekend at Pico for the blind and visually impaired. It opened a whole new world to me,’’ he said. “I literally fell back in love with skiing that weekend.’’
The way the sight-aided adaptive programs work my vary, but the general principle is the same. Blind guides wear an orange vest, and lead the blind skier down the mountain via a telecommunication system. The guides tell them when to turn, when to slow down, or speed up, and vice versa.
“A couple of my guides tie a bright bandana around their leg, something for me to key in on,’’ Robidoux said. “So, I have enough vision where I can look at and follow their skis. But when I’m doing that I see absolutely nothing around.
“The first time I skied with a guide I said, ‘OK, I’m going to follow your skis.’ And they said, ‘All right, when we’re getting ready to stop I’m going to raise up my hand.’ But when I’m looking at your skis I can see absolutely nothing else, so we have to figure out a better system.
“For the most part, I’ve been encouraged to look at the vest while skiing more than the skis, but for me, by looking at the skis I can tell the direction in which they’re turning, and the terrain they’re skiing, so I have a split second. If they’re going to hit a bump, I know in a split second to follow and track their line as close as possible.’’
The adaptive program that Robidoux experienced convinced him what he had been told all along, that the guides on hand could turn skiing back into something enjoyable for Robidoux. One guide even suggested that somebody at Robidoux’s ski level might start racing. Later that season, he entered into a pair of Diana Golden races, a series of events that welcome athletes with disabilities to be introduced to alpine ski racing competition.
He won both races, despite hitting the gate at the outset.
Then, he was hooked.
There are different levels for skiers in adaptive racing, which explains how somebody with a limited field of vision can compete in the same racers with little to no vision. The International Paralympic Movement has set the visual impairment system ranging from B1 (blind or no vision, required to wear eyeshades during the race), B2 (athletes with a higher visual acuity than athletes competing in the B1 class, but they are unable to recognize the letter “E’’ from a distance of four meters, Robidoux’s classification), and B3 (athletes with a visual field of less than 40 degrees diameter).
If a B2 were to finish a race at the same time as B1, the handicap comes into play and the B1 would win.
“It’s very structured,’’ Robidoux said. “You have to submit medical reports, get classified…classified nationally and get classified internationally.’’
This year, Robidoux decided to take his ski racing to the next level, attending an IPCAS (International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing) ski camp in Colorado late last year. Compared to his two Diana Golden experiences last season, this is what Robidoux has discovered to be the “umpteenth level.’’
And the challenges only begin with the impairment.
“My biggest challenge right now is finding a guide,’’ he said, “partly because guides need to be licensed and have all the same equipment as I do. So, essentially I need to find a guide that can travel. I pay for everything., They have to have their license but they also have to have a pair of slalom skis, GS skis, and longer race skis. So, it’s a couple hoops to jump through.’’
He’s spent much of this season trying to find a guide, but it has been difficult. Guides need to be available midweek, based on the trail times. He’s also keeping his expectations in check, aware that the IPCSA race at Loon Mountain at end of March may be his best — and only bet — for racing this season.
“Everything I spend, it’s double because of the guide,’’ he said.
It’s the same when he skis with his wife and daughter at Mount Sunapee, where they have season passes, but he has to pay for a window ticket every visit, in addition to hiring a guide. Then, he has to try and convince the exactly what he can handle.
“Definitely not trees,’’ he said. “I still have an affinity for bumps, so it’s hard convincing my guides to dive into the bumps. Some will, some won’t. I have enough vision that if they stand at the bottom of a bump run like 100 yards down, I can see them and ski the bumps and know when to stop.’’
Robidoux can’t see the bumps, he just knows when to turn. The flat light only allows him to see the general pitch of the hill.
“I have no perception when it’s not sunny out,’’ he said. “Now, I see nothing. When I ski bumps I just let it rip, and I’m still quick enough to turn around that way.’’
It’s been 20 years now since doctors expected Robidoux to lose all his vision, and it hasn’t happened quite yet.
But it’s inevitable.
“The RP pace picks up in the early-to-mid 40s,’’ Robidoux said. “I’m right at that cusp.
“A number of friends who have the same eye disease are 3-5 years older and using guide dogs. I’m preparing to lose it all, and we’ll see how long I maintain or what happens.’’
Photos from Fenway Big Air