Saturday, February 28, 2009

Visually impaired Paralympic athlete is back in action

With two Paralympic gold medals already in her collection, Viviane Forest decided she needed another challenge. Not just a simple challenge, but a change of life as well.

So she turned her world upside down - moving from Quebec to Edmonton and switching from a summer Paralympian to winter and chasing gold medals in alpine skiing - a sport she not only hadn't tried since a young child, but knew very little about.

``I had no knowledge about skiing,'' the petite blond said recently. ``I tried it only a little bit as a child . . . I knew nothing about racing.

``I didn't know what was a slalom or a gate.''

Just months into her first season on the World Cup circuit, Forest has already won two gold medals, three silvers and one bronze in seven races to establish herself as a gold-medal contender for the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver.

``The luck of the beginner,'' she said modestly. ``My first year on the World Cup so I have no experience, not much ski experience about strategy, the right line and all that, so I can't ask for a better year.''

Born visually impaired, the 29-year-old native of Brossard, Que., won gold medals in goalball in the Sydney and Athens summer Paralympics in the visually impaired B2 classification. She has about four per cent vision - she can't read menus in restaurants, has to move close to even read the huge E on eye charts and sitting across a table she can tell what colour shirt her interviewer is wearing, but not much more.

``The only thing I struggle with is not being able to drive a car,'' she said. ``Every day I complain about it because it's so much freedom, just to be able to transport yourself somewhere, to do the grocery shopping.''

And her peripheral vision has been getting worse since she was 14, shrinking to where it's now about 10 per cent in front, tunnel vision.

Which made skiing a real challenge. She skis with a guide - Arnaud Rajchenbach of Montreal - immediately in front of her because she can't see the gates and they communicate through headsets in their helmets.

She took up skiing in January 2007 with the local Canadian Association of Disabled Skiers that taught her to ski, found her a compatible guide and convinced her to go racing.

``She is a natural athlete, picks things up rapidly,'' said Andreas Donauer, CADS ski school director in Edmonton.

She was hesitant because she wasn't confident enough and being a proud Paralympian, didn't want to embarrass herself.

She need not have worried.

Using borrowed equipment, she impressed the Alberta coaches and by the end of that season was selected for the Canadian development team.

``The first year I borrowed all the equipment, even the pants,'' she said with a smile. ``I had wrong equipment. My boots were three sizes too big. I was wearing four pairs of socks and I was complaining it hurt. When (coaches) saw my equipment they were like, `Oh my God.' ''

A year later she was on the national team after winning the 2008 slalom and giant slalom Canadian championships. Now halfway through the season, she is getting ready for her first world championships in Korea beginning Feb. 21 and then the World Cup finals at Whistler, B.C., from March 9-15.

She's quick to give credit for her rapid success to those coaches who have helped her, from the local CADS program to her development coach of last year ``who taught me everything.''

She picked up her first major sponsor last month - The Weather Network - to help offset some of the nearly $38,000 she figures it costs her to ski last year, when lost salary is taken into account.

She works with Aroga Group Inc., working with blind and visually impaired people, teaching them to use braille computers and helping them adjust to life.

``I love the teaching part,'' she said. ``Often it will be people who lost their vision, it's to give them the autonomy they think they will never have again. Or the young children born blind, teach them that they can read and write just like every other kid.''

She uses her own experiences of being born visually impaired and overcoming obstacles to win Paralympic gold medals.

``I always talk about different sports . . . tell them to find a passion and engage yourself in it.''

Edmonton Journal


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