Nancy Stevens has been cross-country skiing for 40 years, but she has never skied alone.
Stevens, a 52-year-old Bend resident, is blind. She relies on the voice of a guide to direct her. The job of a cross-country ski guide, she explains, is to “verbalize what they see coming, when there's a hill or a turn in the tracks."
On Saturday, Stevens will depend on a guide, Renee Gibbons, to help her navigate a course sure to be busy with skiers during Bend's annual Pole Pedal Paddle multisport race. She will compete in the event's 8-kilometer cross-country ski at Mt. Bachelor ski area, immediately followed by a 22-mile road bike along Century Drive into Bend as part of a five-member relay team.
The team is one of three being sponsored by the Bend-based nonprofit Oregon Adaptive Sports (OAS), an organization that provides outdoor recreation opportunities for the disabled. This year's OAS teams for the PPP — True Grit, No Boundaries and Team Onward — are composed entirely of Central Oregonians with disabilities. All three teams will compete in the PPP's adaptive division.
“The PPP encompasses all of the outdoor recreation that makes Bend so wonderful," says Christine Brousseau, executive director of OAS. “We want to put athletes with disabilities right next to 3,000 able-bodied athletes and show they are just as capable."
The physical impairments of the 16 team members range from spinal cord injuries and paraplegia to muscular dystrophy and blindness, says Brousseau.
Skiing is a strong suit for Stevens, who cross-country skied for the United States team in the 1998 Winter Paralympics in Nagano, Japan. Blind since birth, she began skiing at age 12 while growing up in Michigan. The retired Social Security Administration claims representative moved to Bend in 2008.
In January 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon after, says Stevens, “I called (OAS) and said the only way I am going to make it through this is if I can ski."
She began skiing regularly with the help of OAS guides.
“OAS was key that year," she says, “for my mental state."
Now four years later, Stevens says she is cancer-free (she underwent a lumpectomy in 2009 to remove the cancer). And she is still skiing. And biking. And running. And hiking.
On average, she says, she exercises six to eight hours each week with a variety of workout partners. “There's always a new adventure to try," she adds.
In preparation for Saturday's PPP, Stevens says she rides a tandem bike 10 to 25 miles at least once a week, often with Jerri Jones, who will serve as her cycling guide for the race. She also frequently cross-country skis with Gibbons.
“I feel really lucky because Renee is in really good shape, she has a really calm voice (when she is guiding)," Stevens notes.
She says she is excited to try the PPP — her first relay race.
“I want to do my best," Stevens says. “I don't want to let my team down."
One of her No Boundaries teammates, Sharon Van Meter, will anchor the relay with an 800-meter sprint to the finish line. A 53-year-old Bend resident, Van Meter in 2011 suffered a stroke that left her visually impaired.
But she says poor depth perception and difficulty maneuvering on uneven ground have not kept her from exercising. Van Meter, who owned a caregiving and janitorial service before she retired, says she runs several days a week with the aid of her service dog. This winter, she downhill skied with assistance from OAS guides.
She calls the experience empowering. “It really just boosts my morale," Van Meter says. “It makes (me) feel kind of normal."
Brousseau agrees. Sports, she says, cultivate friendships, self-confidence and independence.
“Sports allow a person with a disability to do something they're told they can't do," says Brosseau.
Like Stevens, Van Meter will make her PPP debut this weekend, with the help of a guide (her 24-year-old daughter Autumn will run at her side). During races, Van Meter says, “(other runners) don't often realize I have visual deficit. They come in and cut me off."
Steven Burns, a member of Team Onward, can relate.
Burns — a wildland firefighter — says he was accidentally crushed by a bulldozer while at work in 2006, leaving him blind in one eye and seriously injured (he now has four metal plates and other surgical hardware in various places in his body).
In terms of appearance, Burns, 50, says his body now looks normal. Yet he is limited physically: In addition to the blindness, he cannot run (among other activities).
“Physical disabilities are not always visual," he says.
One thing he can do is ride a bike.
Burns, a Bend resident who says he commutes to work on his bike almost daily, will compete in the cycling portion of the PPP. He loves the thrill of catching speed when biking downhill, he says. “I'm an adrenaline junkie."
He also competed on one of two OAS-sponsored teams last year, which marked the organization's first official PPP team sponsorship.
Founded in 1996, OAS in the past year has expanded from a winter-sport program to a year-round organization. This summer, says Brousseau, OAS has 12 events planned, including golf, kayaking and cycling.
The PPP will serve as the season kickoff, but the focus is not on winning, insists Burns.
“We're survivors," he says. “So we've already won just showing up."