KETCHUM — For the first time since he was a teenager, Mark Bathum is dreaming of standing on an Olympic podium. If he does have a medal placed around his neck this year, though, there’s a lot of the crowd he won’t be able to see.
Bathum, a 51-year-old Seattle resident who has been training for the last few months in Sun Valley to qualify for the Paralympic World Games in March, is expected to be the first visually impaired male skier chosen to represent the U.S. in the games in a decade.
He has retinitis pigmentosa —severe and degenerating tunnel vision — which means he can’t see the terrain around him as he skis, or the racing gates in his periphery.
“I can’t really keep track of where I am, because I don’t see the landmarks,” Bathum said after a morning of training on the Hemingway run on Bald Mountain.
Bathum is guided down the course by a skier racing directly ahead of him, communicating via helmet radio about bumps and dips, close and far gates.
For the past few years, Bathum’s guide has been Slater Storey, a 24-year-old Sun Valley native from a family of elite skiers. His sister, Elitsa Storey, 22, will likely be competing in the Paralympic Games as well, for the second time — her right leg is missing from above the knee as the result of a birth defect.
“I’ve been working hard,” Elitsa said from her training grounds at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., where she has been hoping to recover from a knee injury in time for the games. “I have a second chance of getting on the podium and reaching my goals.”
Marc Mast, founder of the Wood River Ability Program, which introduces disabled people to winter sports and helps coordinate resources for elite disabled athletes, jokes that it has taken Elitsa’s disability and Slater’s guiding for the Storey family to approach its long-time dream of putting Olympic medals on the mantel.
“Our family’s athletic, but none of us have gone quite the distance,” Slater said with a smile.
Reaching the Olympic level as an able-bodied athlete is incredibly competitive and incredibly difficult, as Slater learned when he was injured during his most active skiing years.
But, he said, it has been more interesting to guide Bathum than it was to train as an able-bodied racer. “There’s no book on it,” Slater said, describing how the pair has had to work out verbal instructions and learn to anticipate each other’s movements on the hill.
Slater and Bathum were connected partly by coincidence, when Slater volunteered to be a crew member at a race for the disabled at Soldier Mountain and Bathum was looking for a guide for his first race as a visually impaired skier.
The team began training seriously this winter, when Bathum moved to Sun Valley to train part time. At the same time, they began using helmet radios, which are becoming standard equipment for visually impaired racers.
Bathum and Slater believe they have a good chance of receiving a medal in Vancouver, perhaps even a gold. And, Bathum said, it feels good to be a big fish, even if it’s in a pretty small pond.
“I have felt a surprising amount of joy at being able to achieve excellence, even though it’s in a small niche,” he said, noting that there are fewer than 50 elite visually impaired skiers in the world.
If he doesn’t earn a medal this year, though, that’s it. At 56, he’ll be too old for the 2014 games. “This is my shot. If I don’t achieve the podium and achieve my goals, it’ll be frustrating.”
Though most of the success of the Bathum-Storey team is due to their commitment and training, a small part can be attributed to the Wood River Ability Program, which helped connect the pair with resources, including a ski pass from Sun Valley Resort. Mast and the program have helped dozens of other elite disabled athletes as well, including Elitsa Storey.
“Marc is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done with the community,” she said.
Greg Mallory, e-mailing from World Cup races in Europe as he prepares for the Paralympic Games, echoed the sentiment. He said he was particularly grateful that the Ability Program brought able-bodied elite skiers to the valley to help train disabled athletes, including himself after he broke his back in an alpine skiing crash in 1994.
Ultimately, providing athletes with the means to keep competing is what the program, and the Paralympics, is all about.
“I have tremendous respect for my fellow competitors. … These racers are unbelievably courageous,” Bathum said. “The people that are doing the Paralympics are competing for the joy of the sport. … It’s the pure spirit of the Olympics.”