In early June, Mia Zutter was named to the US Paralympic Development Team. Mia is a 16 year old visually impaired skier from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. This young athlete came to Craftsbury in January to compete in the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) Nordic Skiing Continental Cup and US Paralympics Nationals. I had the opportunity to ski with Mia as her guide in two of the races: a classic sprint and a biathlon race. Two other Craftsbury community members, Linda Ramsdell and Peter Harris, were also Mia’s guides. The responsibility of the guide is to provide verbal direction to the skier as they navigate the course. Mia has limited peripheral vision, so our job was primarily to warn her about things directly in front of her, such as a classic track coming to an end.
Throughout the entire week of racing, Mia was consistently near or at the top of her race category. Her exemplary performance in Craftsbury, as well as the potential that the National Team coaches saw in her, qualified her to compete at a World Cup test event in Finesterau, Germany in late February. In addition to racing at the World Cup, Mia continued to do well on the Wisconsin high school circuit. Due to her strong results on international stage, Mia earned a spot on the US Paralympic Development team. Next year is a big year for the team, including World Championships and Olympic test events, as well as World Cups in Finland, Ukraine, and Japan.
Being a guide was a completely new experience for me. As a junior, I saw sit ski athletes racing in Rumford, Maine during Senior Nationals but that was the extent to which I had been exposed to Paralympic racing. When the IPC races were set to come to Craftsbury, I planned on being part of the timing crew for the week of racing. This seemed like a big enough responsibility, being a back up timer for a national championship! On the second day of racing, some scheduling conflicts pulled one of Mia’s guides away from skiing with her, and one of the US Team coaches, BethAnn, asked if I would like to ski with Mia. The race was the next day, so I didn’t have much time to think about the task that lay ahead – if I had, I certainly would have been more nervous. The first race I did with Mia was a classic sprint. We skied together for about a half hour before the race began, with BethAnn in tow to make sure everything was running smoothly. BethAnn provided pertinent coaching for both Mia and me in the short amount of time we spent skiing together.
In the same fashion as any cross-country sprint race, there are multiple rounds of racing, but due to the limited field size of these races, Mia did a qualifying round then proceeded directly to the final. Throughout the race, I had to be alert to the other skiers around us, terrain changes, and track changes. I spoke through a microphone with a speaker attached to my back for Mia to hear.
Near the end of the final, my enthusiasm and cheering got the best of me when we almost passed the competitor ahead of us and I temporarily paused my verbal instructions and it was all replaced by cheering. I apologized to Mia afterward, but she graciously assured me that it really was okay.
Friday brought the next day of racing: biathlon. Both Mia and I were complete biathlon novices. Visually impaired athletes shoot with an auditory rifle, where the tone of the beep changes when they are on target. This was a biathlon sprint race, so racers skied a loop, shot once, skied another loop, shot once more, then skied one final loop. As with all biathlon sprints, this race was 7.5k, which was Mia’s longest race to date. This made the race an entirely new experience for Mia, as pacing became a much larger part of the game, as well as shooting.
Being a guide for Mia was yet another reminder to me about the multifaceted aspects of the ski world, as well as the welcoming nature of the Craftsbury community. It was amazing to see so many community members come out and cheer on these high caliber athletes as they challenged both themselves and each other. Though I was only there for a small blip in Mia’s ski career, I am immensely proud of what she has done thus far and can’t wait to see what she does in the future, especially as a newly minted member of the US Paralympic team.