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Blindness no barrier to avid skier

Charlie Wirth isn’t just a 92 year-old cross-country skier. He’s a savvy, blind 92-year-old cross-country skier with no intention of turning in his skies anytime soon.

Wirth flies up to Alberta from his home in Tinton Falls, N.J., on almost a biyearly basis to ski with an old friend, Krisandra Rafa of Blackfalds.

Rafa, who has been cross-country skiing for 25 years, acts as his guide on the trails, navigating them through more challenging terrain.

The pair met seven years ago at the William Watson Lodge in Kananaskis during the Ski for Light Canada event, an outreach program of Sons of Norway that matches up visually impaired cross-country skiers with sighted guides for a week of skiing, training sessions and social events.

They continue to take part in Ski for Light, which brings out about 40 to 50 people with vision impairments, every other year, and this winter marks Wirth’s third time in Central Alberta to visit Rafa.

“I’d heard about the Canadian program from a friend who suggested it and thought I’d give it a try,” said Wirth, who also takes part in the American event and from time to time the Norwegian equivalent of Ski for Light.

Rafa, who had decided to volunteer to be a guide after a friend told her about Ski for Light, caught sight of Wirth after the banquet on her first night in Kananaskis and introduced herself.

“I saw him sitting in the dining area alone and here I was on a nice sofa by the fireplace so I invited him to sit by me and we just started chatting and hit it off. He said to me later, ‘I sure hope you’re my guide tomorrow.’ So we made that happen,” Rafa said.

They’ve been skiing together, side by side, ever since.

Wirth, a retired advertising salesman for medical journals, said he had vision problems even as a young child but it wasn’t until the 1970s that he went completely blind.

“Before, I did some downhill skiing in my thirties. I tried downhill again after I fully lost my sight and on the fourth day of trying that I fell and tore a knee ligament.

“It’s fine now and gives me no problems but I thought it’d be best to get away from that activity so I tried cross-country skiing out. That was 15 years ago.”

It was a smooth jump, even without the help of his eyes, as he already knew about the crucial snow plowing and herringbone techniques, Wirth said.

“It keeps me active and gives me something to do as my wife has passed on and we had no children,” he said. “There’s no race. It’s easy and relaxing; you’re in nature and you can stop and listen to the birds whenever you want.”

“Yes, Charlie’s been known to hug a tree or two along the trails,” Rafa added with a laugh.

On top of skiing every winter, sometimes 8 to 10 km a day, Wirth swims lanes for an hour two to three times a week and hikes, bikes and kayaks in the summer. He’s also a big believer in taking the stairs every time he leaves his apartment on the seventh floor of his building.

As Rafa and Wirth hit the trail to Heritage Ranch in Red Deer on Sunday in preparation for Ski for Light (which starts this week), one passerby called out to Wirth, “What’s your secret?”

Rafa laughed and said that maybe it has something to do with Wirth (who turns 93 next month) drinking little more than one cup of water per day.

“No but in all seriousness, he has such a great sense of humour and he’s so witty. He lives in the present and it’s just so easy to fall in love with him,” she said later.

The feeling is mutual and Wirth jokes that the only reason he really keeps coming to Canada is because Rafa is “so lovely in every way,” much like a daughter he never had.



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