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Skiing by Braille

He has difficulty crossing the street and sometimes he accidentally walks into walls. He nearly took himself out on his own barbecue. But Kevin Alderton, who has just four percent vision, owns the world record for blind speed skiing.
By Scott Gornall
posted: 09/16/2009

Kevin Alderton has four percent of his vision. He also has the world record for blind speed skiing.

Photo by: Rick Senley

Next time you’re out skiing, close your eyes. Make some sweeping turns down an open bowl. Try it. Just for a few seconds. Close your eyes tightly. Don’t peek. See how many turns you make before the fear becomes too much. One turn? Two? You’ll be scared but there’s also a giddiness that comes with it, the kind you’d get by turning off your headlights while driving down a straight highway on a moonless night somewhere far outside the city. Your feet will feel minute changes in the snow. You’ll become more aware of where your arms are, where your center of balance is. Then you open your eyes again. There’s the snow; your ski tips. The world comes rushing back in. But if you’re a badass, you’ll try it with a blindfold.

 Or ski with a modified pair of plastic protective specs like the ones used in high-school shop class. Only cover the left lens with masking tape so it can only sense light; on the right lens, scratch the shit out of it, speckle black paint on it to further mess with the focus, then apply thin black strips of electrical tape to take away most of your peripheral view. You’ll wind up with approximately four percent vision. This is how 38-year-old blind speed skier Kevin Alderton sees the world.

[Check out a photo gallery from the story]

I’m in Milton Keynes, England—a London overflow exurb—at the XScape indoor ski slope, a facility that is so boring they let you pay by the hour. Kevin Alderton and I are standing atop the 510-foot-long hill. The place is like an ice rink tilted 20 degrees, and the manmade snow has the consistency of wet sand. Ripping lap after 30-second lap starts to get old, so I put on those jacked-up protective glasses that simulate Kevin’s vision. He had them made to help people understand.

Kevin heads down first. I try to follow. When he gets about 10 feet in front of me, his vague black form disappears into a cataractous fog. All I see is white. This is especially problematic since the snow dome’s walls are the same dirty white as the snow. I’m making as many short, tight turns as I can to curb my speed. I become completely disoriented. Somehow, I fall over. In order to get to the bottom on that first run with the specs, I periodically peek over the top of the glasses. Kevin doesn’t have this luxury.

On our last run of the day, I take off the specs and we race to the bottom. Kevin skates the first half of the course, pumping his legs and arms in unison like an Olympic Nordic skier, then tucks—and wins.

I shouldn’t be surprised; Kevin’s skied at Milton Keynes hundreds of times. This is where he trained in the lead-up to his 2006 world record for blind speed skiing, when he hit just over 100 miles per hour on the legendary Flying Kilometer course in Les Arcs, France. He would come here daily to practice his starts. He’d begin with his skis perpendicular to the fall line, then swing them downhill in one motion, get into his tuck, stop, repeat. If his start wasn’t perfectly aligned downhill, he’d gradually careen off the groomed speed-skiing course and lose control in the junky snow and cliffs that surround it.

Blind speed skiing sounds insane, mostly because it is. But the more you know about Kevin, the more it makes sense. When you know about the drinking, the smoking, the fights, the armed combat, the constant hustling, you start to see the odd, self-destructive logic in it all. Kevin Alderton needs to go fast and take chances. It’s the only way for him.

After we race, Kevin can tell that I’m holding the simulation specs in my hand. He nods at them. “How was it?” he asks.

“That’s tough,” I say.

“That’s life,” Kevin says.

Nicole Webb, Kevin’s girlfriend, drives us home through gentle hills covered in yellow squares of blooming canola. As we drive, Kevin boasts that he can stick his hand out the window and determine our speed based on the wind. At over 100 miles per hour on skis, the air can work you in profound ways. He rolls down the window as we drive and sticks his hand out with fingers straight into the wind. “Seventy miles an hour,” he says. He is exactly right.

 

If Kevin Alderton had a catchphrase, a “Git ’r done,” or, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis,” it would be “Shit happens.” This is what he says when asked about the night he lost his sight. Of course, he can’t say that today, because he’ll be talking to 250 twelve-year-olds at Swan Valley Community School in Swanscombe, Kent. His motivational speech doesn’t start until 10, but he arrives at the blue cinderblock gymnasium an hour early to set up his PowerPoint presentation.

Using special magnification software on his computer, Kevin leans his face to within inches of the screen and slowly manipulates the cursor, opening the first slide in his presentation. Suddenly the 20-foot-tall screen behind him is filled with an illustration of a speed skier, in a tuck, being guided by a seeing-eye dog. The slide reads, “No Sight. No Fear.” And below that, “Zero to Hero.”

Kevin’s six-foot-two frame is bedecked in his sponsors’ logos. He wears a black Head vest with sewn-on patches from Toko ski wax, Bollé goggles, and other labels over a beige Tyrolia hoody. His salt-and-pepper crew cut is covered by a black baseball cap with a Mars Refuel recovery drink logo on it. Below the bill of his hat, his nose, a perfect right triangle, juts out. He stands there and waits, not looking at anything in particular.

Right at 10, the students, each uniformed in a blue blazer and tie, file in. Kevin begins telling them his story. This is what happens after you accomplish an impossible feat—you go on a speaking tour and hope to make some extra quid on the side. His presentation today to the 12-year-olds will be different from the pep talk he gives to office drones at a corporate retreat. But they usually begin the same way. He starts with skiing.

Somehow the son of a rat catcher and a nurse living in South London public housing became a skier. It started when he was eight in Woolwich, in southeast London, at a simulated ski hill on a web of stiff plastic bristles that provide some, albeit minimal, glide. That’s when Kevin first got the taste for speed, and even though he was on a tame slope, there was still that element of danger. At 17, he joined the British Army and got a chance to ski race on real snow in the French Alps. And if the skiing weren’t enough, there was the extra added thrill of getting shot at in exotic places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Iraq. Without the army, he says he would’ve fallen into a life of crime. At this point in his speech, he presses a clicker to bring up a photo of himself in the desert firing a handgun.

The next slide that comes up is Kevin’s “Shit happens” moment. Projected in two-foot-tall letters behind him are the words “A Night to Remember.” In 1998, Kevin and a fellow soldier were walking home from a bar when they saw two guys beating up a woman in a doorway. Kevin and his friend ran across the street to her aid, wrestling the two men to the ground. They pinned them down and yelled out to a bouncer at a nightclub across the street to call the police. The bouncer disappeared inside and a minute later reappeared with 25 friends. “I wasn’t gonna leave m’ friend. M’ friend wasn’t gonna leave me. And I wasn’t gonna let go of the guy unne’neath me either,” Kevin tells the kids.

Then he pauses and says, “And what happened next was the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had.” The students all gasp when they hear the rest of the story, about how he lost his sight.

The gang seized on Kevin, punching and kicking him. He was on the ground. They rolled him onto his back. With Kevin’s arms outstretched, someone knelt on his wrists. He couldn’t move his hands. Then another person shoved his fingers into Kevin’s eyes. When the mob stopped beating him, Kevin and his friend scrambled away, found a cop who administered first aid, and then returned to the scene. The bar had closed, the gang had dispersed, no one was arrested, and the girl ran off, never to be heard from again. “That’s just the way it is, innit?” he says. “I just did the right thing at the time. If I saw’t again, I’d do the same thing.”

The morning after the fight he noticed a steady stream of floaters—small clumps in the gel-filled central eye that cast shadows on the retina—slowly creeping across his field of vision. But he could still see.

He was driving down the A2 highway, alone, doing 60, with a ripping headache from getting his face danced on by a bunch of thugs, when he sneezed. That one sneeze ripped his damaged retina away from the optic nerve in his left eye, where his cornea was already split, and did the same to the retina in his right. The lenses in both eyes were inverted. When he opened his eyes, there was nothing. He pulled off to the side of the road, feeling for the rumble strip, called 999 (the U.K.’s 911), and waited for an ambulance. Both of his eyes had hemorrhaged.

Seven months and nine operations later, Kevin regained four percent of his vision. His left pupil and iris are permanently milky white and slightly smaller than the still-intact brown iris in his right eye. He doesn’t go to the doctor much anymore, except every five years when the silicone oil in his left eye has to be replaced. Shit happens.

 

 

Kevin Alderton is a fatalist. He accepts. He moves on. Oh well, so it goes. But for three years after he was blinded, that wasn’t the case. He had given up. When you’re a soldier you become accustomed to a certain level of risk—not unlike being a skier. For Kevin that constant sense of peril that had been the norm for 12 years was gone. He’d nearly lose control on an icy race course but hold it together for the win. Risk and reward. A bomb in a trash can in Northern Ireland didn’t kill him. Risk and reward. But now his days were spent organizing his kitchen so he’d know which jars held coffee and which held tea. He was scraping by on 500 pounds a month from welfare and working the odd shift at a local bar. Mainly, he was drinking. He’d pass out drunk and manage not to choke on his own vomit in his sleep. Risk and reward.

Kevin admits that he contemplated suicide. He’s told this to anyone who has asked—even the groups of businessmen and the 12-year-olds. But it was skiing that kept him going.

In 2002, Kevin’s friend put him in touch with a blind ex-soldier named Billy Baxter, who convinced Kevin to join Saint Dunstan’s, a charity for blind ex-servicemen. The camaraderie of his fellow ex-soldiers made all the difference. “It’s that sick army sense of humor that gets you through it,” Kevin says.

Saint Dunstan’s specializes in teaching simple independent-living skills, like how to make tea without scalding yourself. Now Kevin can make a wicked shepherd’s pie, which he does when I visit, although sometimes he burns his nose when he leans in too close to the stove trying to see how big the flame is on his gas range. Most important, Saint Dunstan’s got Kevin skiing again.

On a Saint Dunstan’s–sponsored ski trip to Canazei, Italy, in 2005— Kevin’s first time on skis since the night he was assaulted—Baxter started telling Kevin about his own world record. Baxter became the world’s fastest blind motorcyclist, riding 165 miles per hour in 2003. He told Kevin about how working toward that goal had curbed the depression and alcoholism that came with his transition from dick-swinging soldier to blind civilian. Billy knew that if Kevin had a mission like that, he could get his life together. They soon thought of a goal: a record for blind speed skiing. Maybe he’d die skiing at 100 miles an hour; maybe he’d get a world record. Risk and reward. Kevin, who was drunk when they came up with the plan, stood on the bar and loudly announced to a pub full of Italians that he would set a world record for blind speed skiing.

One year later—after the training indoors at Milton Keynes, the sessions with British speed-skiing coach Norman Clarke, the nonstop hustle to pick up sponsors and money, after being strapped on top of a friend’s Porsche to learn about wind resistance—Kevin stood atop the world’s best speed-skiing course, the Flying Kilometer in Les Arcs, France. The smooth piste drops 1,968 feet and the pitch feels nearly vertical at the top. Small cliff bands and rocky outcroppings flank the timing area. To avoid tracking into these hazards, Kevin’s triangular aerodynamic helmet was fitted with a radio headset so Clarke could tell him if he was veering off-course.

When given the all clear, Kevin pointed his 240-centimeter skis downhill, getting into his tuck with his hamstrings resting on foam fins, aerodynamic calf fairings that extend behind the lower leg like large wind rudders. Well before the timing area, Kevin estimates he was already up to 120 miles per hour. Norman told him he was drifting right, so Kevin pressured his right ski to stay centered. But at the same time he unlocked his hands. The air pressure ripped his left arm behind him, twisting him onto his back, and abruptly slowing him down. When he flew into the timing area—on his ass—he was officially clocked at 100.54 miles per hour.

Still falling, Kevin kicked his skis off. In his slippery wind suit he slid the length of three football fields while making sure the back of his helmet didn’t dig into the snow and snap his neck. He came to a stop at the bottom of the course and did the universal “Everything’s OK” wave. He’d broken the world record.

 

Kevin Alderton wants another go at Les Arcs. He was hoping to break his own record last winter, but Jean Jacques Laplace, the head of the French speed-skiing governing body, denied him. Two sighted speed skiers have died on the Flying K in the past three years, and Laplace doesn’t want Kevin to be the third casualty. Italian Marco Salvaggio and Brit Caitlin Tovar, a friend of Kevin’s, both died the same way: They fell among the 45-degree moguls that lie just above the start of the course. Kevin was there when Caitlin died. She crossed her ski tips while sideslipping through the bumps. She tumbled and, because she was wearing her low-friction speed suit, she accelerated down the bump field, getting tossed airborne every time she hit a mogul. She slid for over 3,000 feet before coming to a stop. Because of these fatal miscues, Kevin isn’t spending the winter training in Les Arcs this year. Instead, he’s stuck at home in Dartford.

He spends a decent amount of time at his small two-bedroom house—which is owned by Saint Dunstan’s—chain smoking Benson & Hedges, cooking his dinner at 5:30 every night so he can watch/listen to the BBC evening news while he eats, walking to the neighborhood pub (a route he knows by heart), spending weekends with his five-year-old son Sam (he separated from Sam’s mother one year ago), and sitting inches away from the TV to watch Millwall, his favorite soccer club. He still likes to go to the games and tells me about the time his friend was barred from all future Millwall matches for hitting a referee with a steak-and-kidney pie after a questionable call.

On a Saturday morning in late April, Kevin and Nicole decide to head into the city to watch the London Marathon.

Walking around the streets of London, Kevin doesn’t act like he’s blind. But when he goes to step up a curb, he raises his foot up higher than he needs to—about knee level—then brings it down slowly, feeling for the sidewalk. Nicole knows when he can see and when he can’t. She calmly says “step” when he needs to. Sometimes he’ll start walking down a dead-end hall and she’ll correct his course. Sometimes he’ll knock his drink over. Today he has a small scab on his forehead, healing up after he took a spill and keeled into his barbecue several days ago. But in spite of all that, he still insists he’s “a sighted person who can’t see.”

The Village People’s “YMCA” plays over the PA as we mill about the finish line. Kevin squints in the direction of the queen’s home and starts reminiscing about his days as a Buckingham Palace guard. He tells the story of how he once played cricket with the young princes and hit a line drive into the face of then six-year-old Prince Harry during an overzealous at-bat. “I got the bollickin’ of m’ life,” he says. He had to pull six extra shifts to make his peace with the royal family.

He’s not skiing as much as he’d like lately, but his attitude’s different from those first few years after he lost his sight. He still drinks. And he frequently rips through an entire pack of smokes in a day. But he’s got a goal now: to make himself as visible as possible to get more sponsor money for another chance at a world record.

Kevin’s got a hustler’s spirit—not uncommon in the streets of South London. Some might view it as shameless self-promotion, but 500 pounds a month isn’t a lot to live on when you have a kid. Some people called his November 2006 blind indoor speed-skiing record of 56.36 miles per hour in Holland a contrived publicity stunt, but Kevin couldn’t care less. He tells me he’d like to make motivational speaking his “monthly crust” and is interested in a career in PR or marketing. There’s always ski instructing, which he’s done off and on since he was 16. He’s a certified instructor and will probably start teaching again soon at a new indoor slope just north of London. And to feed his inner daredevil, he’s tinkering around with the idea of a mechanized speed record, possibly driving some dragster down an airport runway.

His biggest project is what he calls the Rainbow Route, a series of colored lines painted on the floor in London’s subways that’ll lead tourists and the visually impaired from one train line to another. He’s hoping he can get it in place for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The Rainbow Route seems mundane when you look at Kevin’s past. He’s 38. Perhaps the fighting and the drinking and the speed skiing were just the last throes of a young man’s self-perceived invincibility. But it still feels as if that need for danger is hardwired into his DNA. Maybe the Rainbow Route will work out and line his pockets, making life a little easier; maybe it won’t. But either way, Kevin Alderton will deal with it. Because shit happens. And there’s no sense crying about it.

 

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