Lindsay Ball of Benton says her parents first introduced her to skiing when she was six. Visually impaired since birth, Benton said her parents were eager to have her live an active lifestyle, but she didn’t have as many options as other children.
“This kid can’t go play soccer on the soccer teams that they have for kids,” the 22-year-old Ball explained late last week. “Skiing gave me the opportunity to do things that everyone else did. I was [at Sugarloaf taking part in a Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation program] every weekend.”
Now, 16 years later, Ball is preparing to do something most of us will never accomplish: On March 16, she’ll compete in the giant slalom at the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games.
Ball graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington in December, where she majored in psychology and rehabilitative services. She’s currently training at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., where she’ll remain until the team flies to Russia at the end of the month.
When Ball reached middle school, volunteers in the adaptive program began noticing her potential, and suggested that she’d do well in a more competitive environment. After a couple years there, she decided that she needed a consistent guide in order to improve as much as possible.
That’s when she began skiing with her current guide, Diane Barras.
“She skis in front of me and I just follow [her commands from] her speaker that’s on her back,” Ball explained.
The relationship between Ball and Barras is essential, and Ball often talks about races “we” competed in, rather than using the word “I.”
Ball’s visual impairment is classified as “B1.” According to the International Paralympic Committee, B1 athletes are “either blind or have very low visual acuity.”
To make races more fair between those who are completely blind and those, like Ball, who have some vision, racers in B1 competitions must wear goggles that are blacked out.
“I can see light and some shadows and ‘blobs,’ as I call them. I can’t see definition or have any depth perception,” Ball said. “My vision’s not really functional.”
Ball worked her way up through the sport, participating in increasingly more competitive race circuits before qualifying for the World Cup in 2012.
“The coach named us to the development team,” Ball said, referring to both herself and Barras.
“Then we raced last year and remained on the team and did some more World Cup races,” she said. “This fall we did some more training camps and races.”
And then, just after Christmas, Ball and Barras suffered a serious setback.
“I tore my ACL [in a knee] on Dec. 29, which believe it or not was our first full-time training day [in Colorado],” Ball said. “I was a little bit cranky about the situation, to put it lightly.”
To put the injury in context, surgery and recovery from a torn ACL often takes months. U.S. skier Lindsay Vonn and snowboarder Seth Wescott each tried to return from ACL injuries they suffered last season in time for the ongoing Sochi games. Neither was able to do so.
Ball realized that, and knew that undergoing knee surgery just two months before the Paralympics wasn’t an option. At a clinic in Vail, Colo., Ball lobbied a doctor for another option.
“I basically asked the doctor if I could wait until the end of the season to get surgery because Sochi was what I had been working toward,” she said. “He agreed. And after four weeks of physical therapy, [I was allowed to ski again]. I’ve been back for two weeks.”
Ball said the recovery has gone remarkably well thus far.
“I feel comfortable, so now I just have to get back to ‘go time,’ race time,” she said. “I’m feeling good on my skis. Yes, I’ve had this setback, but I’m being positive and moving on.”
Ball said she and Barras are qualified for both the slalom and the giant slalom in Sochi, but will only compete in one.
“The slalom is not our best event and we don’t want to risk injury,” she said. “Slalom is first, and we want to save ourselves for the giant slalom.”
And while Ball is excited to be making her Paralympics debut, she’s not worrying too much about competing for a medal.
“I’m going to do the best that I can, but enjoy the experience and see all of our hard work pay off,” she said. “‘Ours,’ because I couldn’t do it without Diane.”