In lead up to 2018 Winter Paralympics, blind skier aims to represent Team USA at 2022 Paralympics
March 3, 2018
A southern Maryland-based mechanical engineer for the U.S. Navy, Don Balcom knows he can be a bit over analytical.
"I am an engineer," Balcom said at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Thursday morning. "I overthink everything."
But there's another reason Balcom is a thinker's thinker when he's on the ski slopes these days: For the past several years, he's been rendered nearly totally blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. It's a clinical term used to describe a group of rare, genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina — the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. Balcom adds that he is one in 4,000 people with the disease.
Despite the condition, Balcom was one of 17 athletes at this year's U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Ski Camp at Breckenridge. The group ranged in age from 4 to 64, and in different levels of experience, from beginner to advanced.
Not only that, but mere days before the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Games are scheduled to begin on March 9, the intermediate skier Balcom has the grandest of goals in mind.
"To ski at the 2022 Paralympics," he said.
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Balcom picked up Alpine skiing over the past three years after he realized his dream of competing for Team USA in the marathon event at a Summer Paralympics was dashed.
After he lost his driver's license due to his blindness, Balcom ballooned to 215 pounds before taking up long-distance and marathon running. Competing as an American Paralympian, Balcom ran in several Boston Marathons and for Team USA's Paralympic squad at the London Marathon, all with ambitions of competing at the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympics.
When that didn't come to fruition, the lifelong sports and Olympics fan Balcom turned his focus to the Winter Games.
"At the time I was ranked in marathon 13th or 14th in the world, and first or second in the U.S., in marathon," Balcom said, "but the way the track and field racks and stacks, I'm competing (for Paralympic inclusion) against the amputee javelin throwers, everything. And they only had 40-something slots, and I think I was ranked in the 90s somewhere.
"So I figured I'd do Nordic, basically running on snow," Balcom said. "I'd run nine marathons, I figured, 'I got that, it's set.' So I came out in December of 2016 to a Nordic camp here as part of Breck Ski Spec, and talked to the coaches and stuff, my first time to Colorado, and just found out that I really couldn't train properly in southern Maryland. So then I hooked up with the USABA to come to this camp last year, to try downhill. It was my first time skiing in 20-something years."
Just a few years and only four times Alpine skiing later, Balcom fell in love with the sensibility, the feel of carving turns in fresh Colorado snow.
"Because it kind of makes me feel free a little bit," Balcom said. "And once you gain that trust with the guide and instructor, it's kind of cool just to — sometimes I would just close my eyes, not even try to look at anything. And, just, I kind of felt free. I didn't feel blind."
As he strapped on his ski boots Thursday before partaking in the 10th consecutive U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Ski Camp at Breckenridge, the 44-year-old Balcom described just how difficult it is for him to ski with the degenerative disease.
When looking directly at you, he can see from one of your eyes to the other, and from your nose up to your eyebrows. That's in one eye. In the other, he really can't see anything at all.
"And that's all I got," Balcom said.
Balcom further describes that with his specific condition of retinitis pigmentosa, he has to deal with dark adaptation, which makes it harder for him to see in the myriad kinds of light on the hill.
"When you go from bright sun to inside it takes you a few minutes to adjust," Balcom said. "It takes me 20. And I don't fully adjust. If it's constant cloud or shade, I'm OK with that. Going through trees and flashing back and forth, that's tough.
"You know, I'm not relying on my vision at all," Balcom adds. "I'm relying solely on the calls being made. 'Turn left. turn right.' So there's a lot of trust involved."
And it's in those moments of trust when, say, descending Breckenridge's Peak 9 intermediate Bonanza trail, when Balcom's overthinking comes into play. That's when he has to trust Mya Magney, the guide for blind skiers set up through the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, who worked with Balcom this past week and at December's The Hartford Ski Spectacular.
"Feel is the biggest thing," Balcom said. "That's what I told all of my instructors. I said, 'Tell me when I am doing something right, tell me I did it right, tell me "that was exactly it," so I know what the feeling is.' Because I can't guarantee I am going to see anything. So even if I am looking, I can't trust what I am seeing because I can't see the whole picture."
Four years out from the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Games, Balcom is holding onto his Olympic hopes. He says he's been a lifelong sports fan, the kind who watches anything and everything.
"Even NASCAR, if it's on," he said with a laugh.
But Alpine skiing it is for now. And for any sports-loving people who may have stopped competing in their favorite athletic endeavors due to their handicaps, Balcom has the following advice: You, yes you, just might have what it takes to be a Paralympian too.
"To knock something off your bucket list that you didn't even know was on your bucket list?" Balcom said. "That's pretty cool. And that's kind of some of the cool stuff you get to do in these (Paralympic) camps and organizations, is — it gives us a chance to go and do it."