BRIGHTWOOD — For Eric Bleich, 35, there’s something freeing about cross-country skiing, perhaps more so than for most who participate in the sport.
Bleich, a 2001 Dallas High School graduate and former Dallas resident, is blind.
He has retinitis pigmentosa, or tunnel vision, and macular degeneration, which affects central vision. The combination took his vision when he was 19.
Bleich skis classical style, which puts the skis in grooves in the snow that serve as tracks. Unlike in many other situations, with cross-country skiing, he doesn’t have to move slowly or cautiously.
“You can put a lot of energy into it. I think that’s one thing that is tough about being visually impaired. I can’t go out and run out loose in the world,” he said. “To be able to get out in nature and be able to let loose, especially hit some downhills hard and climb uphill hard and really open it up and get some speed going, it feels really nice.”
He and his wife Stacey, also a Dallas High grad, like to stay active, so they picked up hiking and other activities. They wanted something to do in the winter.
“We could either ski or snowshoe,” Bleich said. “Snowshoeing sounded awful, so we ended up trying to ski.”
He said Stacey did a good job helping him navigate the ungroomed back-country trails they took, but she wasn’t an experienced skiing guide at the time. He searched for guiding techniques and came across an organization called Ski for Light.
The concept originated in Norway in 1964 with an event for blind skiers called the Ridderrenn.
In 1975, Norwegian immigrant and ski instructor Olav Pedersen founded Ski for Light, based on the Ridderrenn. The organization now works to provide opportunities for visually impaired and disabled people to learn how to cross-country ski.
A few years after their first skiing trip, Stacey and Eric went to a Ski for Light event.
“That opened our world to cross-country skiing and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Bleich, who now lives in Brightwood.
Last month, the annual U.S. event was held at Lake Tahoe. Bleich and his guide, Kent Moore, finished first in the 10K race, the only time Bleich has lead the pack since he started competing in Ski for Light events.
He earned another first in 2018: He’s one of two skiers to represent the Ski for Light at the Ridderrenn in Norway. The week-long event now attracts about 500 disabled skiers, including Paralympic athletes.
“At least within our group it is kind of a big deal,” Bleich said. “I was pretty excited to be selected. I got a call from the (Ski for Light) president while I was trying to make dinner.”
He leaves Friday for a two-day journey to Oslo, and bus ride to the Ridderrenn at Beitostolen. During the week-long event, Bleich will compete in a 5K biathlon (shooting using audio-assisted laser rifles and skiing) 10K and 20K events.
Bleich’s been told the conditions are setting up nicely for the event, which is held at a world-class venue.
“Their grooming is impeccable. The ski tracks are perfect,” he said. “The snow there has just been gorgeous. There is plenty of snow. The conditions are going to be perfect, so it’s going to be fantastic out there.”
Bleich’s mom, Dallas resident Emma Bleich, gushes about her son, and his drive to not be limited by blindness.
“I’m very proud of him,” Emma said. “I know that when he sets his mind to something, he does it.”
Eric Bleich said he owes some of that attitude to Ski for Light.
“Ski for Light is a really neat organization because it was the first time I meet blind people who really were pretty positive, athletic,” he said. “They were living life and doing stuff. It’s a group of people I really connected with. I’ve drawn a lot from being a part of Ski for Light”
For more information about Ski for Light: sfl.org.