The faraway sounds of children's uninhibited laughter woke me up. I hadn't been sleeping well since the end of last season, and most days I woke up before the alarm. I turned in the direction of the bedroom window to try to feel the warmth of the early morning sun, but there was only the perpetual chill of the unrelenting darkness. Inside my imagination I colored our room in golds and pinks and gently shimmering light, before silently berating myself for allowing myself these indulgences. We had taken to sleeping with the curtains open, because once I mentioned how much I wanted to be woken up by the kiss of the sunlight on my skin. It must be hard for Will to sleep with the curtains open but she'd never say a word. I was sure she'd leave the windows open if I ever made an offhand remark about fresh morning breeze.
It's the small things you do for me.
A rustle of the bedclothes followed by a muted moan in response and for a moment I thought I'd said those words out loud. I continued staring in the direction of the window when a warm hand rested gingerly on my shoulder.
"What time is it?" It was the instinctive question of someone still half asleep. If she were fully awake she would have immediately started apologizing and babbling about her perceived insensitivity. I took a deep breath to clear those thoughts from my already cluttered brain.
I reached for the watch on my wrist and took the opportunity to switch off the alarm. "It's not even seven. Go back to sleep, baby," I said as I swung my legs down and rolled into a sitting position at the edge of the bed.
"You getting up?" I could hear the rising concern in her voice. It was the hesitation and how each word seemed to be accompanied by a frown.
I squeezed my eyes tight and opened them in the direction of the window. Nope, still cold and dark. "I think I'll go for a run," I said nonchalantly, already anticipating the response.
"Oh, okay. I'll get dressed." She struggled briefly against the tangled sheets and was about to pull herself up.
Like I said, I'd already anticipated this move and reached back to stop her. "Don't get up. I'll use the treadmill." I shuffled my feet on the floor till I found my slippers, stood up, took the necessary two steps and found the edge of the footboard.
To the casual observer I was merely tracing my palm on the footboard while I made my way across the room. Four precise steps traversed the width of the bed, then five to the bathroom.
"Yeah," I mumbled.
"But you don't like the treadmill. Here, I'll get up and we'll go outside," she insisted.
I stopped at the bathroom threshold. My grip on the doorjamb was as tight as the clench of my jaw. "No. Really, Will, I'm good. It's only a run," I said slowly. You don't have to wait on me hand and foot. Did I say that out loud too?
I could sense her trying to bite her tongue at another round of "you sure's". When she didn't say anything further I stepped inside the bathroom and into the shower.
I turned the water on full blast, savoring the strong sensation on my skin that woke up my senses. Under the cascade of hot water I imagined myself floating on clouds, or running through rain. In my daydreams I was always by myself, I could take care of myself, needing no one to lead me. Part of me felt guilty at my selfishness, of excluding Willow from my fantasies. She didn't ask for this either.
"I want us to be equals, don't you see?"
I must have spoken out, loud enough for her to hear. "Are you okay?" she shouted from the bedroom.
"Yes." I sighed. Shaking myself back into reality I focused on blanking my mind on nothing but water, soap and the shower.
"Did you say something about seeing?"
I jumped and screeched at the proximity of her voice, from the other side of the shower screen. "No, I didn't say anything. Go back to bed, Will."
"Are you alright? You're acting ... weird," she asked out of concern.
I gripped the sponge until I'd squeezed all water out of it. "I'm fine. But if you ask me one more time if I'm alright I'm going to scream."
"I'm sorry," she said in a very small voice. "Can I come in?"
"Actually I'm almost done. Since you seem to be up already why don't you get started on breakfast?" I said as calmly as I could.
"Oh. Okay." She retreated, taking with her the thickness of a thousand unsaid questions.
I was glad she couldn't see me. Even though my tears were indistinguishable from the stream of water under the shower my eyes would be puffy and red. "I'm scared too," I said to no one in particular.
"It's not as bad as we thought."
"She's cleared to compete?"
"Yes, definitely. She qualifies for B1 now, and with her times she'll be one of the best in that class."
"If not the best."
"Giles, will she be ready for Garmisch?"
"Um well, three weeks. It's tough. Can't we aim for Aspen instead? We'll have an extra week, and naturally the home advantage."
"We need Tara back as soon as possible if we are to have a look into team gold this year."
I couldn't help but snort at the last comment. Look. Ha. Mentally I recited the definition of B1, the most severe of the three classes -- No light perception in either eye up to light perception, inability to recognize the shape of a hand at any distance or in any direction. Yep, that was me. Blind as a bat, only now legally which meant I qualified for social security disability benefits. My vision had started deteriorating since I was ten, and I had "progressed" from sporadic vision loss to failing color perception; to black spots that grew larger and larger until everything turned dark.
I had skied since I was three years old, and as soon as I was old enough I'd been selected for one US ski team or another. First the juniors, then when I was diagnosed they switched me to the Disabled team. Casual observers and people unfamiliar with the sport were often skeptical about how we could race our way down a steep ski slope safely. Truth was, with a good guide, a blind skier was just as good as a sighted one. And Willow and I were a very good team. I love the exhilaration of the wind in my hair and the freedom that came with speed. It meant though that my life was an eternal cycle of school, training, competition and endless hotel rooms. There were trophies a-plenty but I couldn't appreciate them, they sat inside a glass cabinet for other people to view.
I'd remained very quiet while the conversation continued as if I wasn't in the room, as I usually did. Between my coach Giles, my specialist Dr Rosenberg and US ski team manager Snyder my life was perfectly planned. Around what they wanted. I tried to remember if anyone had ever asked me what I wanted.
"Sunbathing in the Bahamas or sipping a morning cappuccino in Florence, thanks for showing an interest," I muttered.
Willow's hand landed protectively on mine immediately. "Are we doing this too soon?" she asked gently.
I shook my head. Physically I was in good shape, but mentally? I wasn't sure; and I wasn't sure if I was ready to talk to anyone about that. Including Willow. "No, I just need some motivation that's all. I'll be fine once I get to training camp."
"I'll ease you back into the routine slowly, let's not push your body too hard initially," Giles said. "We'll only do as much as you are ready for."
"As long as you're ready by Garmisch," Snyder added.
"No, I agree with Giles. We have to let the healing process run its course," Dr Rosenberg said.
"But the team championship!" Snyder pushed.
"Snyder, you may as well kiss your precious team gold goodbye if we push her into competition before she's 100% fit. If she gets injured again she'll be out for the rest of the season," Giles argued, with uncharacteristically harshness.
"She's not going to get injured again. That was a freak accident," Dr Rosenberg interrupted.
"We can't take that chance, Sheila," Giles said decisively.
Oh people, how little did you know. It wasn't my body that needed healing. The invisible scars had been there long before the accident.
There wasn't much else to discuss after that. Giles and Dr Rosenberg won this particular battle, but I knew Snyder wouldn't stop piling on the pressure. He had other ways of turning the screws and most of it involved control over my funding. Unlike tennis players or basketball stars, skiers weren't exactly swimming in sponsorship money. No, scrap that. The majority of disabled athletes struggled to make ends meet; depending on charity donations and what little funding we received from our governing bodies.
But if I wasn't doing this, I'd be a telemarketer for a long distance phone carrier. I should be grateful.
Willow took my hand and we were on our way out when Dr Rosenberg stopped us. "Tara, Willow, stay for a minute?"
Giles gave me a stiff hug and an encouraging squeeze on the arm. Snyder tried to take my hand but I pulled away, earning an indignant "humpf" from him. Little did I care.
"How are you two holding up?" Dr Rosenberg asked us after the two officials left.
"Pretty good. I never realized physiotherapy was so hard. Tara's doing so well," Willow answered.
"And Tara, have you talked to Dr Walsh?" Dr Rosenberg asked.
I shrugged. "A couple of times. I don't like her attitude. I have a physical disability, not a mental disorder," I said flatly.
"Maggie is too arrogant for her own good. I hate how Snyder insists on using her. How about another recommendation? I know someone from Stanford--"
"No, I'm fine. I'm all shrinked out," I smiled.
"Are you sure?"
God, when will all of you stop asking me that. "I'm sure."
She seemed to be satisfied, and didn't push. "Alright. So onto something more pleasant, when are you two coming for dinner? We missed you at Thanksgiving."
"Mom, we were kinda busy with all the hospital appointments," Willow said defensively.
"I know, that's what I told your father. But he wants to invite you to spend the holidays with us." Oh, my mother-in-law was smart, use the passive aggressive approach. She must have learned something from Maggie Walsh.
"Well..." I could hear the hesitation in Willow's voice. She wanted me to decide.
"If we're not training or at competition, we'll try our best," I said. Willow's relief was evident as she relaxed and let out the breath she probably didn't know she was holding.
"Great! It's decided. Your Aunt Marie has this wonderful blueberry blintz recipe, I'll get it from her."
"Mom, no fuss," Willow said.
"I want to do something special. Indulge me," Sheila said warmly.
It occurred to me that Willow would fuss just as much, if not more, under similar circumstances. Like mother, like daughter.
We said our goodbyes and headed home. Training wouldn't start till tomorrow.
I pushed myself very hard to get ready for Garmisch. Inside every successful athlete was a relentless, stubborn, competitive streak that pushed us to our body's limit and then just one extra step I wanted to prove the doubters wrong. The more they expected me not to be ready, the more I was going to prove to them that I was. I was at the gym every day working on weights and circuit training; Giles put me through a strenuous round of coordination and cardio drills; at home I rode on the stationary bike whenever I could. My physical fitness was approaching its optimum peak. Technically, I was feeling sharp.
Blind skiers faced additional challenges obviously, because we couldn't see. That was where the sighted guide came in. In my case, Willow had been my guide since my first world championship-winning season and we had been top ranked for the last three seasons. She skied in front of me and we'd developed a simple system of verbal signals where she could let me know when to turn, when to expect a bump and when to simply pick up speed. I never had any problem hearing her given the adrenalin, the shouts from the crowd and the sounds of our skis cutting over the snow. Many teams used radio, but with us it was like we had this magic, intimate connection.
Or we did. My training times were dismal. At this rate, I'd barely make the qualifying criteria for the Beginner's race.
That was my last thought as there was a sickening clatter and I lost control of my skis. My legs gave way from underneath me and I hurtled uncontrollably in a storm of powder snow. I crashed into the side netting of the slope in a jumble of equipment and body parts. I yelled out in frustration as I tried to disentangle my skis and poles but they seemed to become even more meshed together. I tried lifting my downhill leg only to cry out in pain as it had twisted at an uncomfortable angle.
"Are you hurt? Don't move, I'll get you out," Willow's out-of-breath voice sounded behind me. I registered her presence, and heard other voices approaching the scene of my embarrassment.
"I need to get the stupid bindings off." I ignored her and continued my struggle with the equipment and the slimy netting.
"Tara, stop. You're getting yourself even more trapped. Let me help." She knelt beside me and released the skis. Vaguely I felt her hands on my legs trying to work them free. I was too worked up and it took me a few moments to stop my movements. "Are you hurt?" she asked again.
"Only my ego," I snorted. Ski accidents were notoriously unpredictable. You could break your neck with an innocuous fall into soft snow; or walk away unscathed from a horrendous-looking tumble. I could feel irritation surfacing. "Where the hell were you? I could hardly hear you. I need you to be telling me about these curves and bumps," I said angrily.
She had one hand on my thigh. Her grip tightened for a second before resuming to tear open the netting. "I was in front of you as usual. Gentle left turn into the chicane, you couldn't hear me?" she asked.
"No," I said shortly.
"I know I--" she started to protest.
"Well whatever you signaled didn't get through. It's me getting directions that is more important, and I didn't get proper directions no matter what you claim to have said or not said," I interrupted.
"Tara, I'm not accusing you of, of -- geez I don't want to get started on a game of 'I said you said'. Besides we've skied down this slope thousands of times," she said evenly.
"I see," I seethed. "I stumbled on a bump and almost twisted my leg for the fun of it. I need to be able to trust you, Will. I'm struggling to get my time down, I need you to be at the top of your game too."
I felt, then heard her stiff breath. "This isn't about bumps or curves, is it? You're good enough a skier to handle undulations in the terrain," she sounded irritated. Then she continued quietly. "Do you want another guide?"
"No! I do not want another guide. Why do you think I even thought about getting another guide? Ridiculous," I huffed.
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," she muttered.
"For fuck's sake Will, stop this. It takes too long to develop any sort of rapport with a new guide. We're a team; we're registered as a team; we compete as a team. That's it."
"So if it was possible you'd want a new guide, is that what you're saying?"
"I'm not saying anything! Stop putting words in my mouth. Do you want to stop being my guide?"
I wanted to lash out. At Willow. At Giles. At anyone. Someone was to blame for me being so out of form. Willow was right, I should be able to do this with my eyes closed even if I weren't blind. I wasn't feeling the snow. It was hard to describe, but to me skiing was letting the snow and the mountain be my guide. It felt like I was being passed from snowflake to snowflake -- instinctively I knew the best route. It felt like floating. But lately, instead of letting the elements glide me downhill, I was using brute force and powering through. It jarred.
She said nothing. From the faint tremors of her fingers I knew she was being bombarded my emotions and close to tears.
I didn't want to break the heavy silence.
She finally got my legs out of the netting. I scooted back until I found a comfortable sitting position. I knew I needed her help to find my skis and poles; and then to put my skis back on. There was so much I took for granted that Willow would do for me.
"Do you want me to talk to Snyder or Giles?" she asked softly as she tapped my knees to get into the correct position to snap the skis on. She was hurt. Even in my self-absorbed, frustrated state of mind, I knew I was being unfair to Willow. She stood by my side as both my team-mate and my lover, it was hard on her too; and no one asked her if she was alright, if she was tired of me.
"No," I found her shoulder and squeezed apologetically. "I'm sorry. I'm being an ass. I don't want another guide." Or another person in my heart.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm sure. I'm sorry," I repeated.
She traced a finger gently along my cheek. I shivered at the unexpected intimacy of the gesture. "We need to get you back on track."
"I don't know what's wrong. I'm four seconds out, it's disgraceful," I sighed.
"If you're not ready, you're not ready. Snyder and the others will need to live with it," she tried to console me.
"I don't know how more ready I can be. I'm fitter than before the accident," I said.
"Is your heart in it?" she asked suddenly.
My instinctive answer was an angry one. How dare she question my commitment, my drive? The retort hovered at the tip of my tongue, then I swallowed it. Was I ready mentally? I thought I was but perhaps I over-estimated myself. Maybe I should turn the question around and ask her.
I was saved from further self-reflection by the arrival of other helpers. In the ensuing round of endless reassurances that I wasn't hurt and a stream of people asking about my well-being, I didn't get a chance to talk to Willow, and the moment passed.
I crouched on the floor in the corner behind the armchair. There was enough room if I scrunched and brought my knees up so they rested under my chin.
I didn't know how long I had been there.
The front door slammed and hurried footsteps echoed down the hallway, hitting the kitchen first, then storming closer.
"Tara? Where are you, baby?"
I held my breath and made myself into a smaller ball.
I heard her move away, then the air in front of me changed. I let slip a breathy whimper.
The armchair shifted imperceptibly when she squatted down. I turned away.
Even though she tried to remain motionless I could sense her, smell her shampoo and hear her breathing. But I gave no indication or acknowledgment of her presence. I started counting; one, two, three.
"What's wrong?" she finally said.
"Tara, talk to me please," she pleaded.
Twenty-six. "Did Giles call you?"
"Yes. You didn't show up for training and he tried calling your cell--"
"I switched it off," I said shortly.
"Why? You got me so worried! I thought you'd been hurt again, I couldn't drive home fast enough."
"You. It's all about you. All of you -- Giles, Snyder, your mom, you. Has anyone BOTHERED to think about me?" I was so close to tears the last few words were stuttered out. It was the last straw, the culmination of a lifetime of frustration and immense pressure. Of having to behave in a certain way; of never being completely independent; of not having control over my own future.
"Move your left arm a bit," she grunted as she tried to squeeze into the already tight space.
"What are you doing?" I asked incredulously. Nevertheless I moved my arm and the only place to put it ended up around her shoulders. For her part she had to almost sit on top of me, sprawling across me with her face resting just over my collarbone.
"Well, were you gonna come out from your hiding place?" she asked.
"No," I admitted.
"So I'm here and now that we're literally joined at the hips you have no choice but to talk to me," she paused. "Talk to me please, baby? Something's bothering you."
"So I blew off one training session. I shaved over one second off my time since last week; I deserve a break. Giles is such a worry-fart sometimes," I started.
"Beeeeeep. I'm sorry Ms Maclay, one bonus point for inventing the term 'worry-fart' but the answer is incorrect. Please try again," she said in her best game-show host voice. She continued softly, "Remember I know you, and you said it yourself: we're a team. How many guides did you go through before you found me?"
"I can't even remember some of their names. All I know is everything clicked the minute you said hi," I smiled thinly as memories came rushing back.
I could feel her smile on my skin. "I had an advantage then. I couldn't take my eyes off you the minute I walked into that room. I was so scared of the adults noticing and kicking me out cuz I was ogling you like a crazed nun."
"Crazed nun?" I smiled back. God she felt so good.
"Well okay, not nun cuz you know, Jewish. And ewww. You know what I mean. I was sixteen and full of hormones! And don't get started with that Ms Manners act, missy. It didn't take you that long either. Who kissed who first, mm?"
"It was our first world cup win. I blame it on the adrenalin," I said mock-righteously.
She harrumphed. "The first peck was adrenalin but not once it escalated. Not the whole three-minute performance, with no sound but photographers clicking their hearts out and everyone's jaw dropping on the floor."
"My god, we were a scandal, weren't we. How many magazine covers did we make? Made a lot of editors happy."
"Giles has all of them in his scrapbook. We looked at it the other day, while you were... were in hospital. I never realized the Newsweek cover caught Giles looking like a funny shade of beetroot, you should have seen it--" she gasped as she stopped herself abruptly. "Shit, I'm sorry."
"Shh, shh. Don't censor yourself. I won't have you watching over every word you say in case it offends me; I definitely don't want you pussyfooting around me the way you have. That's why we've been so out of sorts lately." I felt still and calm. Having Willow so close, feeling the ups and downs of her breathing, it was the closest we'd been for a while. One of the reasons we were such a successful team was because we were almost telepathic. But since the accident, our timing was shot and we were constantly out of sync.
She turned quiet, busy in her own thoughts. "You looked so tiny, so fragile. You had tubes all over you and I had nightmares about you shrinking away. It's all my fault," she said, in her faraway guilty voice.
I wanted to smack her and envelop her in a bear hug at the same time. "It was a drunk driver who ran a red-light. None of it is your fault." I made do with tightening my hold on her.
"I was the one driving. Some part of me will always blame me. If I could have swerved a little more to the left, or hit the brakes sooner," she trailed off into a soundless sob.
"Will, listen to me. It was an accident, there was nothing you could have done. Without you by my side, I wouldn't have recovered so quickly. You know that don't you? I know you've been overcompensating; now throw all that guilt away." I said the truth.
"I was afraid you'd leave me. That you wouldn't need me anymore. That first you'd have me replaced as your guide. Then you--you'd find someone else," she sobbed.
I felt so small. That I've led her to think the unthinkable. "Hey, we're a team. No, we're more than that. I'll always need you. I can't imagine life without you. I'm sorry I've been a bitca lately. I've been too focused on myself, I'm not so good with the ..." I wagged my finger back and forth between us.
She must have looked puzzled. "Stirring things up?"
"Communication. Telling you how I feel; talking to you instead of letting things fester."
"I love you, Tara." That was all I needed to hear from her.
We felt something that had been awry slot back into place. The emptiness, the jarring, the fear of fading away ... they began to dissipate with one kiss. Then another, and when I opened my mouth to let her exploring tongue inside, it was like the rush of warmth filling a chasm.
We were still in that tight little space behind the armchair, and I desperately wanted to reach under her clothes to start my own exploration. It took some strategic maneuvering, and I almost reached my target when she squirmed and stopped me.
"What?" I had the sense to protest rather than to try another way.
"You think you can kiss me senseless and I'll forget the reason why we're cooped here in this corner? Now spill. What's bugging you?"
I knew her. She wouldn't accept any explanation but the truth. I had been bottling it up for too long already. I wasn't ready to tell her last week when we started training, but I had to let it out eventually.
I swallowed hard. "I can't see."
Her stumped silence told me that she did not expect that statement. I could almost hear her brain whirling through the different responses. From the obvious "but that's nothing new" to the caring "I'll do anything to make it better".
"I don't know what to say," she said eventually.
"I'm blind, of course I can't see. But now I've lost the little peripheral vision I had, I feel so disconnected," I tried to explain. "I'll never see leaves falling on the ground, or ice cream melting in the sun. And your face. I'm so scared, Will. What if I forget how you look?"
Before the accident I could make out general shapes and colors if they were close enough and in a particular spot. I knew that it was always a risk, that my sight would become worse as I grow older, but I was able to ignore those dark thoughts. The accident changed everything in a split second. I should hate that driver, but I hadn't even bothered to find out his name.
"I don't think you'll forget me that easily. If you start forgetting how I look, I'll show you in more ways that you can imagine. When you scream my name, it's my image that will be imprinted in your brain," she said determinedly.
Oh, at that moment I could believe her.
"I hate being in B1," I swallowed and continued.
"Because you have no real competition in that class?" she asked as she got it immediately.
I nodded. "It's like giving a grad student a 12th grade math test. I feel like I'm getting a free pass that I don't want. Which in turns makes me lazy and arrogant. Hence the sucky training times."
"All champions need to have arrogance, otherwise they'd never get where they are. You'll win this year's world cup by the biggest margin ever. And next year we'll set about seeing if you can be classed as B2."
"You make it sound so easy," I said. Competing against athletes with better sight than me without the handicap adjustment, that would be a challenge. It was unprecedented, but we'd done a lot of unprecedented things in our career.
"You and I need to communicate better too. I can't help but think all these -- the accident, us drifting apart, you not finding your balance -- are connected. You know, like every thread in the universe is connected. And when one gets broken all the other strands try to keep everything in balance but ends up straining themselves. You get what I'm saying?" she explained.
And there in that moment she hit the truth right where it counted -- the effort to deal with everything all at once meant nothing was properly addressed.
In other words, we were both trying too hard.
I should have talked to her earlier. I'd missed her quick brain, how much she cared about me and most of all her unfailing optimism. She was more than just the person who told me to turn left and right, she was my senses, my conduit with the outside world. Other teams had perfect communication, but Willow and I had a deeper bond. Now that we found it again, there was no way on earth that I would let it slip.
Cementing the bond took more than words. We didn't need to say anything, because she knew and I knew that our commitment to each other was forever. After we extracted ourselves from our spot I took her into the bedroom and we were not shy about showing how much.
Giles called a few times that day, but all he got was our voicemail.
"You want to what?" Willow yelled over the biting wind.
"Walk the course again," I yelled back.
"There's a snowstorm coming in, the race is suspended. They want us inside, Tara." She grabbed my hand and tried to lead us in the direction of our dormitory.
"Please, Will, one more time. I want the course etched in my mind," I pleaded.
We were in Garmisch. It would be a clichéd, overly dramatic fairy tale if I were to say that spending a day and a night making love with Willow was like feeding me Popeye-brand spinach and I returned to the slopes immediately the next day acing every event. Ha! I could even imagine the sweeping music and a cartoon Tara rising like a Phoenix from a pit of fiery chains holding me back. No, in reality re-connecting with Willow was a catalyst. One burden shed, a weight lifted -- whatever the metaphor it was a boost but it was hard training that mattered. Two days before we were due to fly out to Germany, my team had a meeting and agreed that I should go. This time, I was the one who was the most vocal about it.
I competed in all four events -- downhill, super G, giant slalom and slalom. Five first places were up for grabs -- one for each event and one for the overall event. Each event required different abilities, ranging from flat out speed in the downhill to technical agility in the slalom.
I took a big risk in the first downhill run, deciding to take the fastest, and steepest, line. My constant shouts of "faster! faster!" pushed even Willow, herself an accomplished competitive skier, to her limits. Most people imagined the communication between a skier and her guide to be one way, with the guide shouting directions such as "left" or "stop". A truly effective team worked together, with the skier telling the guide when to speed up or slow down.
I knew I had to set a good time; partially for my self-confidence but mostly motivated by wanting to throw down the gauntlet. I almost fell several times during that breakneck run, but I gritted my teeth and forced myself to recover. I led the field by 39 seconds going into the second run.
My second run was less smooth, and I was less kamikaze knowing that all I needed was to finish with a decent time. My closest rival, a B2 skier from Canada, managed to close the time gap but was not fast enough to beat my combined time. I was jubilant as they announced that I had won the downhill event.
One down, four to go.
The super G was the Canadian skier's best event, so it came as no surprise when she won it. What was disappointing was that she edged me out of the lead in the overall points position. She held that lead after the giant slalom; although I won that event it was only by a few tenths of a second and not enough to overtake her in the overall leaders board.
This is the big one.
Each event took place over a day, so when we went to bed I was hyped up in anticipation of the slalom. I fully utilized Willow's numeric skills, asking her to run multiple models of finishing times -- mine as well as the top five racers. In slalom skiing, racers were often separated by a few tenths of a second: there was no room for error. One thing was clear, from her calculations, even with my B1 adjustment I still had to win the slalom outright to take the overall event.
Pumped up on adrenalin, I tossed and turned in our bed. After our first world cup win and the Newsweek cover there was no doubt that Will and I were a couple. That had never caused any problems with the ski federation or with other competitors. Perhaps it was solidarity between minorities; many if not all the disabled athletes had been on the receiving end of some form of discrimination and went out of their way to not be bigots.
I woke up early the morning before the race and turned in the direction of the window in my eternal quest for sunlight. It wasn't to be, but I focused my mind -- there was work to be done. We showered and quickly made our way to the equipment room. Our skis had to be sharpened and waxed before every race. Like most racers I insisted in waxing them myself.
The race was scheduled in the afternoon. Mid-morning was the official inspection. When it was our turn we snow-plowed through the gates very slowly, memorizing the layout and peculiarities of the course.
We were just about to start the second round of inspections when the blizzard hit. The officials herded us inside with ruthless efficiency and announced that the race was suspended. Some of the racers camped out at the cafeteria; others returned to their dormitories to rest.
There was an evaluation after lunch and it was announced that conditions were too unstable for further competition that day. The slalom was rescheduled for the next morning. If the storm persisted the race would be canceled and the results after three races would be final.
That was bad news for Team Maclay. If the slalom was canceled I would be stuck at second place overall. With my absence from the circuit after the accident, it would be harder and harder for me to catch up.
I need the storm to pass.
I'd sat in our room for hours, getting increasingly angsty. Finally I snapped. I tore out of our room, stopping just long enough to grab my jacket, and stomped resolutely in the direction of the course. I had a general idea of where it was but I knew I wouldn't get too far before Willow caught me. And that was where we were now, standing at the foot of the mountain that held my fate.
"Please, Will, one more time. I want the course etched in my mind," I pleaded.
She stopped in her tracks. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes I'm sure," I affirmed.
"You know my toes are frozen and I can hardly see with the snow falling into my eyes," she said.
"But you'll come with me anyway," I grinned.
"The hell I'm gonna let you go out there on your own," she was grinning back. I didn't need to see her to know. "Come on."
We trudged up the soft snow, thankful that the course was on the lower slopes. We were pretty exhausted when we reached the starting gate, and had to stop for a breather.
"Giles will have a fit," I commented.
"Not to mention the IBSA, knowing that we're out here doing recon without one of the judges present. They probably think we're out here to sabotage the course," she added.
"Like what? Move the poles so it confuses the other teams? The race will be declared void faster than you can say après ski party. What motivation would I have?" I snorted.
"You know that's not how they think. Remember, it's a federation that has rules numbered like 1402.8.2."
"Straight after your own heart, Ms I-have-a-spreadsheet-that-catalogs-everything-I-own?"
She playfully punched me on the arm. "And who used those kickass spreadsheet skills to help a very persuasive ski racer work out that she needs to post a time faster than 2:33:48 to win?"
I threw my hands up in mock surrender. "I give up! You can magic number me anytime."
"I most certainly can." She tilted my chin for a soft kiss. "Let's map this winning course of yours."
Are you ready?
I heard the question in my dreams all night. If the demons were expecting to disorientate me they were mistaken. I woke up with steel in my heart, I didn't even stop to look for the light of the sun. Unless there was a miracle cure I wasn't ever going to see sunrises or sunsets. It was time to stop searching for the impossible and go after something that was possible.
Yes I am, you bastards.
"I've heard you scream profanities in the privacy of our bedroom that would make Cartman blush, but you've never called me a bastard before," Willow's voice broke into my pensive brooding.
"What? Oh. I was just talking to myself," I said off-handedly.
She placed a gloved hand on mine. "Nervous?"
I swallowed. "A little," I said.
"Would it worry you if I said I was too?" she confessed.
"No, I wouldn't expect it any other way," I actually felt re-assured that she was nervous too. Strange how emotions work.
"I'll be with you all the way, don't forget that," she said stoutly.
I smiled gratefully. "I know. Thank you, my love."
"Okay, our turn," she returned to her official guide voice. "Three side steps up, then the Starter will take your hand. Oh, here comes Giles."
I caught the faint whiff of Giles' aftershave as he hurried up. "Everything ready?" he asked.
I had no hesitation in answering. "Yes. Ready." I held out one gloved fist.
"Good. Then see you at the finish. Good luck." His fist touched mine in a salute.
The starter official called out my name. We stepped forward and spent a few seconds confirming our identity, listening to the inevitable rules and having our equipment checked. We both had to wear regulation-approved helmets and as a B1 racer I wore blacked-out goggles (to totally ensure that I couldn't see and 'earning' my adjustment points). Willow, as a guide, wore a fluorescent green bib with a large black "G" printed on both sides. I asked once if it bothered her, to be wearing it; her answer warmed my heart: "I feel privileged, to be honest."
Willow guided me to the middle of the track behind the start gate and I shuffled until my shin guards touched the metallic needle. Standing behind me she took my left arm and pointed it at my initial racing line. We brought my ski pole down until it rested on the snow, still pointing along the racing line. I turned my head to face directly where my arm was pointing. After fixing my starting position I remained motionless, waiting for the starter bell.
Willow didn't go through the start gate, taking her position a few feet downhill from me. She would take over directional duties once I started but the first steps out of the gate made a huge impact on how the race would flow.
I took several deep breaths to clear my mind. I shifted until I was completely relaxed, rocking my skis back and forth to balance myself.
The bell rang.
A loud cheer went up through the crowds as I pushed out of the gate. As I experienced the initial drop I felt a blast of adrenalin rushing through my body; I wouldn't deny that I looked forward to this rush every time I competed. It was ... arousing.
I turned my skis in the direction I was pointing, and in no time at all I was at the first gate. I kept upright, and tried to keep my upper body still. Most of the work would be done by my hips and legs. It was the most difficult discipline for a blind skier because of the quick directional change.
I negotiated gate after gate, whacking the poles out of my path with my boots or arms. The plastic poles, although flexible, were hard and when they landed on a body part that wasn't protected by padding it hurt. But I didn't feel anything.
I found my rhythm and the rhythm overwhelmed all other sensations; I lost awareness and the only sensation was cutting through the snow in slow motion. The whoosh of the poles snapping next to my head, my skis skimming the surface of the snow, the sizzle of the air as I sliced through combined to send waves of vibration through me.
With the course layout deeply imprinted in my mind, I only vaguely acknowledged Willow's directions. I carved through the turns with a clean action, as if on autopilot, knowing when to turn, when to skid and when a gate was coming up.
I'm feeling the snow.
I felt an effortless merging of action and my awareness. I was in complete control and yet I couldn't control it. I let go, and let whatever part of myself -- mind, spirit or body -- take over.
And then, I started enjoying it. I gradually heard shouts from the spectators, who always liked to punctuate their cries of encouragement with the distinctive ring of cowbells. Above that explosive maelström of noise, I could hear Willow distinctively. Instead of our usual simple signal system, her "come on Tara, follow me" whispered like a tendril inside my head.
Then I sailed through the final gate and assumed a tuck position for the final few meters' run to the finish line. I didn't remember stopping, but I must have in a flurry of snow. I didn't need to check the time, nor did I need a second run. I knew I'd done it. The overall win was mine. There were tears and laughter and hugs and joy and then Willow's lips found mine.