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2018 Winter Paralympics: Saints' Zutter not losing sight of goal

St. Scholastica freshman and U.S. Paralympic Nordic ski team member Mia Zutter skis a short section of trail at Korkki Nordic recently. Normally Zutter follows a guide skier. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

2018 WINTER PARALYMPIC GAMES

Most people would consider the loss of sight as reason enough to stop cross-country skiing.

But that's about when Mia Zutter started.

Zutter was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a progressive visual impairment, in the summer before seventh grade. An active and athletic preteen with an affinity for running, she stuck with that sport, training and racing while attached to a guide, who helped Zutter navigate rocky, uneven trails.

It was that unusual arrangement that prompted a story in the Wisconsin State Journal when Zutter was a sophomore at Sun Prairie High School. Not long after the article was published, the Central Cross Country Ski Association — which "promotes the culture of cross-country skiing by creating opportunities for athletes and coaches of all backgrounds," according to its website — contacted Zutter.

The organization told her it had a Paralympic development team "if you want to come try skiing."

Zutter was intrigued. Her parents, Michael and Jennifer, were adamant. You're going, they told her. And it was settled.

Three years later, Zutter, a freshman at St. Scholastica, is going somewhere else to ski — Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Winter Paralympics.

After a recent Saints practice at Korkki Nordic Ski Center, located between Duluth and Two Harbors, Zutter, in her own understated way, revealed her excitement at being chosen to represent the U.S. In December, she performed brilliantly at the IPC Cross Country Skiing and Biathlon World Cup in Canmore, Alberta. But it wasn't until Jan. 31 that the good news finally arrived.

"I waited for a whole month just kind of twiddling my thumbs," the 18-year-old Zutter said as daylight — and the temperature — faded rapidly at Korkki Nordic, extending stark shadows across a pristine blanket of freshly fallen snow.

She will compete in at least three events, maybe four: 15-kilometer freestyle (March 12), classic sprints (March 14), 7 1/2-kilometer classic (March 17) and, possibly, a freestyle relay (March 18). The Games begin Friday and run through March 18.

Her teammates will be cheering Zutter on from afar.

"Of course!" St. Scholastica senior Kelsey Dickinson said when asked if she'll be keeping tabs on the action. "Of course I'm going to be watching her race and cheering for her. We all will be."

Like looking through sea glass

Despite her youth, or perhaps because of it, Zutter handled her diagnosis well.

"It didn't really mean much to me because it was just a name of a disease and I was like, 'I don't know what this means for my future,' " she said. "It was hard for me to understand because I was so young, but I just kind of figured it out."

Early on, Zutter was told she wouldn't go completely blind. Stargardt disease is gradual, meaning Zutter was able to adapt as her sight slowly deteriorated. That was the good news. The bad news: She wouldn't be able to do all the things she was looking forward to doing. Playing volleyball, for example, or getting her driver's license.

"As a teenage girl wanting some freedom, that was really hard," Zutter said.

At St. Scholastica, where Zutter is majoring in psychology, she works one-on-one with a tutor, who reads aloud while Zutter takes notes.

Stargardt disease "causes progressive damage — or degeneration — of the macula, which is a small area in the center of the retina that is responsible for sharp, straight-ahead vision," according to the National Eye Institute website.

Consequently, Zutter's central vision is foggy. Light comes through, but it's unclear. Her peripheral vision, however, remains intact.

"It's like looking through a piece of sea glass," said Zutter, who noted that the condition has stabilized and, if she loses any more sight, it shouldn't be significant.

Fast learner, fast skier

As Zutter glided across the snow at Korkki Nordic late last month, it was evident why skiing has become her preferred pastime. The tracks were smooth, the trail devoid of rocks and holes. Zutter could focus on propelling herself forward without worrying about potential hazards lurking ahead.

Unlike running, she can ski on her own. Zutter relishes that independence.

Still, Zutter admits she's likely a better runner. More experience.

"This is only my fourth year skiing, which is kind of insane," said Zutter, who made the U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing national team in 2016. "I like skiing more, so I'm willing to put more into it."

Indeed, all she wants to do is ski. Zutter "fell in love with it" almost immediately and quit track as a prep junior so she could stay on the snow longer.

But she didn't give up running altogether. Zutter was on the Saints' cross-country team in the fall — tuning up, presumably, for Nordic season. For each sport, she uses a guide, either Jason Kask or Ellie Evans. Both are former Saints.

When she skis, Zutter's guide isn't attached to her, but rather about a body length in front, calling out directions into a microphone, which are amplified for Zutter via a speaker strapped to the guide's back.

"Instead of having to strain my eyes really hard to see where they're going, I'm just listening," Zutter said.

Cruising along over crisp snow in college races, through wooded terrain and surrounded by the competition, there isn't much margin for error. Zutter has to be precise. Trusting, too. Not being able to see what's coming means she has to make adjustments based on commands from her guide.

Talk about faith.

"Especially on downhills," Zutter said. "That's when I'm the most like, 'Please have my back right now. I'm trusting you here.' "

The Saints, Dickinson says, will always have Zutter's back.

"I think everyone is really invested in making sure she has what she needs to do well and be successful," Dickinson said.

The day after Zutter was named to the Paralympic team, St. Scholastica coach Maria Stuber noted the strides Zutter had made in her first season of college skiing. Stuber specifically highlighted her freshman's technical efficiency and upper-body strength.

It goes without saying that she's already got the mental strength down.

"She is a constant reminder that no matter how good you are on skis, you can always be tougher and braver," Stuber said in a news release. "She teaches us that you don't know how strong you can be until you are faced with a challenge, and stepping out of your comfort zone should be a part of everyday life."

• This week in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Dickinson will become the first St. Scholastica woman to participate in three NCAA Skiing Championships. She was the final qualifier out of the Central Region. The Nordic portion of the championships starts Thursday.

Dickinson, from Winthrop, Wash., produced the fifth all-region performance of her Saints career at the NCAA Central Region Championships last month. She did so in the freestyle.

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