Read an Excerpt
My Perfect Moment
My perfect moment: dead of winter, dogs running flat out, air so cold I can taste its brittleness on the tip of my tongue. I know this trail, know it by heart. Ahead is a sharp switchback right, followed by a steep downhill, breaking into a series of tight S-curves. Any of these can cause a musher to wreck.
I have the overwhelming sensation of speed. A blanket of snow-laden clouds hides the harshness of the sunlight. I squint to see the vague shapes of dogs out in front of me. They are indistinct and one-dimensional. I see a bit of harness over there, a leader's head bobbing, feet flying, a chest lunging, a tongue lolling up and down, the swish of a tail, the rump of a wheel dog. I know from past experience that the dark blobs flashing past on my right are pine trees. To the left is nothingness, a sheer drop-off of several hundred feet.
I have absolute trust in my dogs. Their breathing comes hard and fast. They scream downhill. Full tilt. I tell myself, "Get ready for it." Bending both knees, I drop my center of gravity, getting as low as I can on the runners. The dogs kick up snow crystals that sting my cheeks like shards of glass; cold wind gnaws at my ears. "Stay off the brake! No matter how wild it gets, just stay off the brake!"
Blasting into the switchback, I shift both feet to the right runner, my right leg instinctively extends out as if it were an outrigger, and I throw my weight to counterbalance the centrifugal force that wants to fling us to the outside of the curve. The runners chatter, sharp edges bite into the snow, and we whip around the corner with the sled sliding just a tiny little bit.
Jamming out of the switchback, we plunge downhill. My overwhelming impulse is to mash the brake, dump some of this seductive speed. But this is a race. No time for caution. No time to get conservative. Girl, it's time to get athletic!
Into the first S-curve. Into it and out just as quickly. Staying low. Shifting weight from one runner to the other like a dancer moving across the ballroom floor. Charging through the second S-curve, breaking out and blasting down the long straightaway. I did it. I grin, wildly pump one fist in the air, throw back my head, and shout, "Wahoo!"
I may be young. I may be a girl. I may be visually impaired. But none of that has diddly-squat to do with the fact that I am a sled dog racer. My plan is to become world champion and to someday challenge the leaders of the Super Bowl of sled dog racing: the Iditarod. To me all the other stuff is irrelevant. But it seems that everyone I come in contact with wants to focus on one thing: what I can see or, to be more precise, what I cannot see.
Yes, I am legally blind, but blindness has not stopped me. In fact, it has barely slowed me down. According to the legal definition, a person is blind if she has uncorrectable vision of 20-200. In a clinical setting with controlled lighting, my vision is about 20-200. But when light conditions change, my vision rapidly deteriorates. Doctors estimate my walk-around vision varies between 20-300 and 20-600.
I was born with congenital achromatopsia, a rare genetic disorder caused by a recessive gene from both parents. In technical terms, I have a shortage of rods and cones in my retina. Rods and cones control light, color, and depth perception.
Exactly what do I see? I have been asked that question a million times. All I can say is that I see what I see. It might not be what you see, but I do not think that makes my gift of sight any less distinctive or beautiful to me than what a normal person might see. It is just different, that is all.
In fact, the question of my vision would rarely come up if I gave in to my blindness, but I refuse to. Especially when there are so many activities I enjoy: rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming, running competitively, and racing on a tandem bicycle. But my passion, the reason I believe I exist, is to raise, train, and race sled dogs. I am a musher, a sled dog racer, and I live for those moments when everything in the universe seems to align into a delicate balance of perfection. In those moments my vision is never an issue.
Living with Blindness
People wonder how a blind athlete is able to compete in the demanding world of sled dog racing, where sight is such a fundamental part of the sport. I suppose it is not unreasonable for people to question me, especially if they saw me trip over an exposed root or drag my nose across a printed page trying to read a book. My answer to people who question my ability is: "Watch me." I love my dogs and I am competent in every facet of the sport, except that every now and then I need a little help seeing things out on the trail.
I have a full field of vision, but I lack detail and the ability to gauge distances. I see some colors but cannot always tell what those colors are, especially blue and green. Those two colors seem absolutely the same to me. I see black and white. That is easy to recognize. And I can sometimes differentiate between red, yellow, and orange.
It is difficult for me to describe my vision because I do not know what a person with normal vision sees. You may be able to clearly see a photograph of a loved one. I see a basic image that I recognize as a person. You see distinct features, eyes and hair color. I see an imprecise shape of a face, dark holes where the eyes are supposed to be, and a blurry, nondescript suggestion of hair. The person I see in the photograph is blended together. It is not really fuzzy or distorted, just blended.
The best way for a sighted person to get a feel for what I see is to take Vaseline and apply a liberal coating on a pair of eyeglasses. Spread the Vaseline on thick enough so that you cannot read the print in a book unless you hold it about three inches from your face. When you look at an eye chart you should be able to make out the top letter; it is an E pointing to the right. That is about what I see on a sunny day. At night my vision actually improves, but car lights are difficult for me. I see the two circles of light that are headlights, but there are skinny fingers of light that stretch and radiate out from the fringes of the light source. Oftentimes headlights irritate my eyes and within thirty minutes my eyes will begin to burn. If I close my eyes the pain usually goes away.
Most people refer to my blindness as a disability. To me the word "disabled" means that you are "unable." I am by no means unable. But if you go to several sites on the Internet you can find all sorts of knee-jerk responses to my blindness. Some of the contributors to these sites say that since I have a visual impairment, surely I could never survive the cold or ride a sled or even care for my dogs. They want to focus on what they perceive as my disability rather than on my abilities.
I am convinced that there is more to vision than merely sight. My body finds ways to counteract my blindness, including a reliance on my senses of hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, as well as my intuitionwhat my gut tells me. For instance, once a dog has run a trail he remembers all the twists and turns and will diligently follow the same path again the next time. I have run races where a trail has been changed from the route my lead dogs ran two years before and they will want to follow the old route. I respond the same way. When I run a trail I pick up the subtle nuances of the trail, the way the sled moves under me, the long uphill pull where I have to get off and run to lighten the load for the dogs, followed by the downhill, and the sharp switchback at the end of the grade. I store those things in my memory, just like the dogs do. And I read the lay of the land around me, the way sounds echo and bounce around that landscape, the changing aromas as we progress through woods of pine, fir, lodgepole, and cedar. I hear the subtle difference the runners make passing over the trail, chattering on ice in the shadows and whispering softly in the sunny spots.
There are many alternative ways to see. I have worked to hone those skills, and as a result of my successes I am never hesitant about trying something new. You want to rock climb? I'll beat you to the top. Want to swim? Let's get wet. Ride a horse? Can we run barrels? How about trying a tandem bike? I'm all for it, just as long as I'm not the one steering. Run a footrace? Make it a long one, with a lot of hills thrown in. I'm not a very good sprinter, but I've got great endurance and can beat a lot of sighted people from three miles up to a twenty-six-mile marathon. I'm like the Energizer bunny. I just keep going, and going, and going. I love to run.
What I see seems perfectly normal to me. I do not know what I am supposed to see, because my eyesight has always been like this. I do not know what I am missing. There were times at high school track meets when everything was a blur to me, but a friend would describe how the race was progressing and how the runners were coming around the far corner. I would think to myself, Wow, you can see what's happening way over there; now that's pretty cool.
When I run on a four-hundred-meter track I see the white lines that mark the lanes and can see if anyone is close to me by the general form of her body. Sometimes I see the color of a competitor's uniform. I can tell when I am approaching a corner and know the finish line is always at the end of the straightaway. I do not think that my lack of vision, in any way, impairs my ability to run on a track. A track is like a clinical setting: Every track is laid out exactly the same, the surface is flat and smooth, and during the race the pace dictates a certain cadence where sight is no longer a necessity. I run just to be running, not for the ribbons or medals, although I am competitive and do like to win.
In track there is a freedom from obstacles, unforeseen circumstances, and the confusion and distractions of everyday life. In an odd way my visual impairment might even be considered beneficial because it allows me to fully concentrate on simply running.
Cross-country running is another matter. There were times in high school when I missed a poorly marked turn at a cross-country meet and ended up out in the pucker brush. Other times, when the light conditions were particularly bad, I felt compelled to slow my pace rather than risk stepping on an unseen rock and rolling an ankle, running into a tree, or tripping and falling. I have done all those things and skinned my knees and elbows. I've worn the bruises and scars like badges of honor. But I have also embarrassed myself in front of competitors and spectators, and that can be humiliating, especially for a young girl who is merely trying to fit in with the crowd.
If I had to choose between running cross-country and track I would probably choose track. The scenery does not change all that much, but at least I know I have less chance of running into something or injuring myself. Besides, it is difficult to go the wrong way on a track; there is only one right direction: counterclockwise.
A few sports elude me. I will never play tennis on center court at Wimbledon. Never be the goalie on the USA soccer team. Never play point guard in the WNBA. If the sport involves a ball, I am toast. When a ball is thrown to me I generally see it leave the person's hand, then it disappears as if it were in a magic show, only to reappear again a few inches from my face. That is why I always flinch when a ball is thrown at me. When I was young some of the boys used to toss a ball at me just to see my reaction. Usually the ball hit me in the face and I made a slapstick grab for it. The boys, and even some of the girls, thought that was funny. Kids can be so sadistic and mean.
Stationary objects, like parking meters or trees, have a tendency to jump out at me. According to my eye doctors, I have better peripheral vision than straight-ahead vision. When I am racing dogs, looking straight ahead, I will not see a trail marker until it flashes past next to my sled. And then there are ropes, cables, and guy wires. I never see them and will usually trip and fall as ungracefully as a goose on ice. Guy wires are the absolute worst; they get me every single time.
There are times when I am able to avoid making a fool of myself and people are unaware that I have a visual impairment. When that happens it makes me feel as if I have accomplished something of significance. If I am standing close enough when people find out, I can actually see the look of surprise and shock sweep over their faces. Sweet. Otherwise I have to settle for the tone of voice as someone says, "Really?" or, "You are?" or, "Is that true?" or, best of all, "You're blind? I never would have guessed."
If I were sighted, the world I live in would be neater and more orderly. I did not invent the disorganization that surrounds me. Visually impaired people, in general, have a tendency to be messier than sighted people, who instinctively know, or can quickly see, where they placed a particular item. A visually impaired person puts one thing down, another article on top, and the first thing is lost until an inordinate amount of time is spent going through stuff until the lost item is found. I accept the fact I do not possess any of those skills it takes to be organized, and yet it frustrates me when I look at my room, or my locker at school, or the binder where I keep my homework. I ask myself, How did I let this happen? and vow to work harder at my organizational skills. But I fear that I am doomed to a life surrounded by a jumble of clutter.
During my high school years I acquired the label of being "aloof" and sometimes even "stuck up" because I did not greet or acknowledge people by name as we passed in the hall. I guess they figured that since I was capable of completing a five-hundred-mile sled dog race I should certainly be able to recognize someone standing five feet in front of me. The fact is, I forget that people see me a whole lot better than I see them. At one point I was going to have a T-shirt printed with the words: "I'm not a snobI'm just blind." But I never did.
Often I can recognize a friend by the way she stands or maybe a distinctive gait or hairstyle, or maybe he always wears a letterman's jacket or a backpack or smells of a certain cologne. These little things allow me to recognize particular people without actually seeing them. Of course the easiest way is to hear a voice. A voice is as distinctive as a fingerprint, and so is a laugh. No two laughs are exactly the same.
When it comes to interacting with my peers I cannot make any assumption on looks and appearance because I have to get uncomfortably close to become aware of that kind of detail. I never judge people by superficial things: how they look or what they wear. Instead of physical features, I see characteristics in people: personality, strength of character, ability to talk, listen, and formulate opinions, sense of humor, level of self-confidence, and their sense of spirituality. As a result I have a cross section of friends that blows most people's minds. My friends range from a girl with purple hair to the prom queen and boys from the most popular athlete in school to one who has never had a date in his life. I would not trade my diverse group of friends for anything in the world.
I wish I knew how many times I have left the house wearing the most mismatched clothes known to mankind. I did not have to look at my outfits, so it never much mattered to me. Not until the girls at school began teasing me. It took awhile, but I finally figured out that black or white tops and jeans go with everything. I could never go wrong with that.
In my opinion makeup is highly overrated and something I have never really fooled with all that much. Every once in a while, if I'm out with a girlfriend and she has some makeup in her purse, I might throw on a little dab of mascara. Or if I am attending an important event I will have Mom help me look pretty. Really, at this stage of my life, I do not need makeup. When I no longer have color in my lips and wrinkles begin to show around my eyes you can bet I will sing a different tune. Until then the world gets me natural.
I consider myself as normal as anyone. I only feel blind on an especially bright day when surrounded by a crowd. When I find myself in such social situations I generally stick close to the person I came with. There is no worse feeling than being alone in a crowd, when all the faces look the same and I cannot differentiate between them unless I get within a few inches of the person. If I do that and it proves to be a stranger it can be rather awkward. Put me in a crowd and I am lost, but out in the woods I can find my way because my other senses kick in and I can identify tangible landmarks: trees, rock outcroppings, mountaintops, the skyline, the general lay of the land. Away from people I am perfectly fine and content.
Generally I am comfortable with my level of vision. I was once asked a hypothetical question: "If an operation would give you a fifty percent chance for perfect vision, and a fifty percent chance for total blindness, would you take the risk?" My answer was a definite, "No." I am satisfied with what I have. And no, hypothetically, I would not be willing to trade sight for any of my other senses. TasteI never would be willing to give up the cold, creamy sweetness of soft ice cream on a hot summer day. HearingI could not live without music and the sound of puppies yipping and carrying on at feeding time. SmellI want to be able to breathe in the tang of evergreens and sweet fragrance of a meadow of flowers in springtime. FeelI want to be able to stroke a dog and feel the warmth beneath my fingertips and the way the muscles squirm with happiness. I am content with my level of vision.
If I could change one thing it would be the general assumption of most people: that legally blind means that a person cannot see anything. There are subtle degrees of vision, whole ranges of sight, and countless terms to describe them: "low vision," "partially sighted," "visually impaired." To be politically correct, I am a visually impaired person. In my opinion being politically correct is highly overrated. You can call me whatever you like, visually impaired or blindjust as long as you never call me handicapped or disabled.
I know that one of the main reasons people are curious about me is because I am a legally blind girl doing something unusual. It would be nice if the media focused their attention on my beautiful dogs and my skills as a sled dog racer. But that will never be the story. My blindness is what captures the interest, the part that sells newspapers, books, and the products I endorse. I will always be Rachael Scdoris the blind sled dog racer.
Some people try to put limitations on me because they want me to fit into the legally blind box. There are the naysayers out there who say I have no business being out on the trail, or running dogs, or doing any of the other activities I am involved in. A perfect example of this occurred during my freshman year of high school. I was running a cross-country race and got clotheslined by a guy wire. One minute I was running and the next I was on the ground, flat on my back. Once I got over the shock I jumped up and continued to run. A woman standing near Dad admonished him with, "Your daughter is blind. How could you let her do something so dangerous?"
Dad came back with the greatest answer: "What would you like for her to do? Sit on a couch with a white cane over her lap and be blind?"
I refuse to sit back and let life quietly slip past me. I want to be involved. I want to try things. I want to live and experience everything I possibly can. I know there are dangers out there. I accept them. No, I embrace them. Dangers present us with fear. And fear is my fuel. It makes me go. If I did not meet the dangers of this world head-on and come to grips with my fear, I would be cheating myself.
Those people who are content to sit on the couch and say, "I'm blind," or, "I'm deaf," or, "I'm sick," are missing somethinga life.
My blindness gives me a sharp contrast between easy and difficult. It forces me to push past the limitations other people try to place on me. Over and over again I am obligated to prove my competence and, as a result, I push harder to achieve than anyone else I know.
I hope this book will provide a window of understanding of the fact that just because a person has a physical impairment or certain limitations that person is not helpless. Those of us who are impaired or limited must cling to the possibility of hope. Hope that today's challenges will be overcome, hope that we can find the personal strength to face yet another battle, hope that our individual lives will become more rewarding.
Kids have told me that I am an inspiration to them. They consider me a role model. I never sought to become a role model, have never thought of myself in those terms, but if people say I am, then I am comfortable with their assessment. Although such a label does put a certain amount of pressure on me, because I know I have a responsibility to make sure I behave myself and act in a proper way. I need to be constantly aware of my words and actions. But that is a mission all of us share. We all serve as role models to those younger than us.
I plan to live my life to the fullest, challenge myself at every opportunity, never give in, never give up, and always fight for what is right and just. If I do those things I will be successful. That's how I see it.
Copyright © 2005, 2006 by Rick Steber. All rights reserved.