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Sam Cook column: Eye issues don’t slow this ski racer

It’s all about trust — and a desire to succeed.

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Max Nelson (right) double-poles near the finish line of a CXC Junior National cross-country ski race on Dec. 14 at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center in Duluth. Nelson, 15, who is visually impaired, is guided by Duluth’s Jason Kask. (Photo courtesy Sharon and Jon Nelson)
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The two cross-country skiers came flying around a sweeping downhill curve on the Grand Avenue Nordic Center trails at Spirit Mountain. Their skis flicked over the snow as they both fought to control their line on the challenging descent.

They moved at breathtaking speed, attacking the drop, the trailing skier riding close on the tails of the skier ahead of him. Bearing down on the two skiers from behind charged a column of other racers moving just as fast.

And then I heard Duluth’s Jason Kask, the lead skier, shouting over his shoulder as the pair whizzed into a sharp turn.

“Left! Left! Left! Left!” Kask yelled.

Only then did I realize what I was seeing. Kask was serving as a guide for the skier following him, Max Nelson, 15, of Mahtomedi, Minn., a terrific high-school skier who happens also to be severely visually impaired.

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Nelson was competing in the CXC Junior National qualifying races at Spirit Mountain on Dec. 14-15. I happened to be stationed along the trail as a volunteer.

It is one thing to watch such an event on television. It was quite another to witness it from trailside, listening to the scratch of skis on snow, watching skiers jockey for position as they powered along the 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) course. And to imagine what must have been required of both a skier with limited sight and his guide.

“He has to have a lot of trust,” Kask said. “And he’s very tenacious and brave. … That he can ski so aggressively is amazing.”

Kask and Nelson had made several practice runs together, learning to work as a team, Kask said. At times in the race, he said, he felt he was holding Nelson back.

“He was stepping on my skis occasionally,” Kask said. “One time he said, ‘Go!!’”

Kask, a former Duluth East High School and College of St. Scholastica ski racer, was also a wax technician and physiologist for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic ski teams in Sochi, Russia, and in Pyeongchang, Korea.

Nelson has had limited vision since age 3 due to an inherited eye disease in the family that nobody knew existed previously, said his mom, Sharon Nelson.

He had retina detachments in both eyes.

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“Both his retinas fell off at the same time,” said Jon Nelson, his dad. “We were walking along in the afternoon, and he said, ‘Dad, it’s night. I can’t see anything.’”

He’s had many eye surgeries since then to help him maintain the small percentage of vision he has.

Nelson can read words one at a time if the print is very large, his parents said. He sees only with his right eye, and what he sees is limited. He has many blind spots, so he must move his head to find his “sweet spot,” his mom said. He studies Braille so he will be able to read if he loses what vision he has now.

“He doesn’t really have any vision other than like a blurry image 4 feet away,” Jon Nelson said.

Still, Max maintains a B average in school. And he skis like the wind. He finished 26th among 30 skiers in his age class at the Spirit Mountain race.

“He just loves the sport,” his dad said. “He made the team as a seventh-grader and is now their No. 1 skier.”

“Maxy’s skiing is bigger than just him doing something he has passion for,” Sharon Nelson said. “Skiing is his way to show the world to not feel pity because he can’t see well, but be inspired and know he sees the world more clearly than most of us.”

Kask and Nelson negotiated that demanding corner flawlessly during the race at Spirit Mountain and accelerated into a straightaway. I was in awe. I stood and watched their colorful racing suits flashing through the maples until they disappeared in the woods.

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Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249 .

Related Topics: SPIRIT MOUNTAIN
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. 
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