• The Luetchfords

What happens when the International Paralympic Committee takes away your race licence

James and myself ski racing in November 2018 in Holland at the Europa Cup slalom races
James and myself ski racing in November 2018 in Holland at the Europa Cup slalom races

I wish I didn’t know about this. I truly don’t. But unfortunately, last November, the seemingly impossible happened. The International Paralympic Committee stripped my severely sight impaired husband (the new term for technically ‘blind’ in the UK) of his para alpine ski racing licence, stating that he could suddenly ‘see’ too well.

I’m not going to go into the reasons here as to why this is wrong; why the test was not indicative of his sight; why this is outrageously incorrect. That’s for another time. What I will do here is explain what happens next.

James (my husband) has been in the room with the two international classifiers, the GB SnowSport representative, and an IPC representative for what seems like hours. I’ve tried standing outside to try and hear the conversation but no luck. Suddenly, the door opens and James storms out, desperate to get away from the situation; the people in it; the building, as soon as possible.

“It’s over. It’s all over.”

The words hit me like a sledgehammer. I’m completely disbelieving. What is happening? My husband can’t see — and has been classified as the middle level of disabled ski racer by the exact same classifiers for the past four years. The same two men who deemed him a B2 level athlete with <10 degrees of vision are now suddenly saying he has >70 degrees of vision.

They’ve used a different machine today to measure James’ visual field; one that James has never been tested on before, so we are completely unprepared for what’s happening now.

No one around us can tell us what has just happened. We are stunned and crying. I’m inconsolable, and I know James will be once the shock and anger has worn off.

The irony of the situation is also not lost on us. James only started skiing when he found out that he was eligible to ski race as a visually impaired athlete. Because of the same men telling him four years ago that he was eligible to ski race, we’ve invested all we have in ski racing. We’d found our dream.

We’ve refocused our whole lives to prioritise ski racing. We’d sacrificed huge amounts of our time, energy and money to do this.

We live out of a van 1/4 of the year with our two cats to afford to ski race. I’ve gone part time at my day job to be able to take enough time off to ski race. We’ve put our careers on hold, used up all our savings and far, far more, to represent Great Britain internationally. We are Europa Cup qualified in slalom and are working hard to qualify for the Winter Paralympic Games.

We are due to race the following day in Holland at the World Para Alpine Ski races, and then the Europa Cup races. My parents have flown out to Holland to watch us ski race together for the first ever time. Our ski racing family is waiting back at the hotel there, assuming we’ll be turning up again shortly to prepare for the races.

Being deemed ‘not eligible’ with a one year review means that we are unable to ski race at all for Great Britain for the foreseeable future. We are suddenly not able to race the four races in Holland; the races in Finland or the races in Austria that we’re already entered in — and paid for.

We get no refund on the cost of our race licences. We get no refund on the race entry, accommodation or food costs for races in the upcoming month. No one can help us.

My parents are legends, and take us out for food — and buy us lots of alcohol. When it turns midnight, we break into my birthday cake, as I’m turning 34. Turns out my birthday is cancelled this year. I’m inconsolable, and can’t even face the sight of anything ski related. We’re not meant to be crying; we’re meant to be ski racing in the first races of the season, alongside our skiing family with my parents watching.

In between the tears, we start to make our way home. We make our way slowly; I’m hungover and aware that emotionally we’re extremely fragile. We try to distract ourselves by stopping in Brussels for a few hours. We try to eat (and manage to force down some waffles, being cultural and all that). I’ve also posted a brief message on Facebook saying what’s just happened, and we’re inundated with support. People we’ve not heard from in years are reaching out, offering help. Every single person who knows us and has seen James ski race knows how outrageous this is and tells us so. Every single person.

We manage to say goodbye to some of our skiing friends before we left, and also manage to speak with the GB SnowSport representative too to try and understand what our next plan of action is.

We never, ever, imagined this would happen. We don’t know of any other athlete, ever, who’s been declassified after being B2 for four years. It’s particularly hard to accept when it’s an able bodied person (or two people) telling a disabled person what they can and cannot see. And frustratingly, the IPC does not allow any direct contact between themselves and the disabled athletes. The only route to communicate with them is through the national governing body, GB SnowSport.

We feel wronged, silenced and traumatised. Our experience has rocked the system for all visually impaired athletes.

The coming months are horrible. It’s like someone very close to us has died. Our plans for the winter season are suddenly gone. And it’s worse than when I snapped my ACL in 2017; then I knew what I had to do to return to snow. Now, we don’t know if we ever will be able to ski race again. It’s all a huge, uncertain, emotional mess.

I try to go back to my day job, but I have to explain what’s happened time and time again. I cry. I’m distracted. We’re both just struggling to get through each day, no hour, one at a time. Small steps. And then even smaller steps.

We struggle to eat healthily and look after ourselves. Why would we, when our reason to do so has been stolen from us? Why would we bother going to the gym?

It’s at this moment that James’ dad offers to help. And, for the first time in a long time, James accepts. James’ dad becomes our point of contact with GB SnowSport; liaising with them regularly and pushing potential options for resolutions with them. Having him do this means we can try and forget about the whole debacle, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.

The International Paralympic Committee understand that this is a very unusual situation, and so we hope that they may be able to be flexible about their classification processes. Normally, we’d have to wait one full year before seeing the international classifiers again in Landgraaf, Holland, for a re-test. The scene of the crime. Which means we’ve lost a whole season of ski racing; don’t know how much progress we’ve made; don’t know if we should be continuing to invest as much into our ski racing, nor if we’ll ever be able to ski race again. Mentally, it’s just way too much. Fortunately, the IPC seem to be open to the idea of James being reclassified earlier than November. Where and when though is very much unknown.

We get James’ eye test results redone on Harley Street on both machines the IPC used and the test results confirm James is eligible to compete. So in December, we ask if James can be seen by the visually impaired classification panel in Norway instead. The IPC consider it, but say there isn’t sufficient capacity to do so.

The visually impaired classification in the United States has been cancelled, so the only other ski racing classification is in China in February 2020. It’s a hell of a long way to go.

GB SnowSport hope that the IPC may allow James to be classified in another sport in Europe, some time in February. This would save much money in travel costs, and as the skiing visually impaired classification is non sport-specific, James could be classified in e.g. swimming, and still eligible to ski race on the para alpine circuit.

However, there is no incentive for the IPC to change their ways of working, so at the moment, this is still just a hope for us.

We go skiing in December for the first time since the classification horror show, and it’s an emotional time. We see our ski training friends and end up explaining again and again what has happened. Being on skis is traumatic. It reminds us of the whole experience in HD focus.

But we persist. And the sadness and anxiety starts to momentarily lift. We start enjoying ourselves and our minds and bodies are soothed by the mountain air and daily exercise. We feel comforted by our skiing family and appreciate being able to train in racing gates again. Because it starts to be fun again.

We’ve seen from our own tests that James is classifiable, so we decide to carry on ski training with gusto until James can be reclassified. Once he is and as long as the required processes and protocols are followed, we’re confident he’ll be deemed eligible to ski race. And when we return, we don’t want to lose any time. We want to be the best we can be.

And at Christmas, James’ family offer to financially support a trip to China for James to be reclassified. Their generosity makes a trip there possible, and so James and his dad begin planning. James and his dad will fly to Beijing and back again, and I’ll stay with the cats in the van around Vienna while they are gone. Essentially they’re flying to China for an eye test. It’s mad but necessary.

Both James and his dad have to obtain Chinese visas, but they need return flights and hotel booking confirmations, so cannot wait until the IPC decide if they will allow James to be seen in Europe at another sport’s classification before booking – and paying for – the trip. We try to make the losses as little as possible in case the IPC does decide to allow James to be seen in Europe, but still, it’s a financial risk.

We’re asked whether it’s worth going to China, but for both of us, the answer is clear. Yes.

1) A resolution – either way – will be mentally beneficial. We’re confident that James will be classified, but the seemingly impossible has already occurred, so we are aware it might happen again.

2) At least if the decision doesn’t go our way, we won’t invest so much of our own time and money into ski training over the summer…

3) And can start the appeals process earlier over the summer, rather than waiting until the winter season.

4) As it’s highly likely that James will need to be classified anyway in Holland in November if he does get classified in China, at least we’ll have more knowledge, experience and confidence behind us.

5) There are still 12 races that James could compete at during the 2019–20 winter season, so we would still be able to ski race this season and also better understand where we are in our progress.

6) If he is classified, we’ll be able to motivate ourselves to continue the gym work and training over the summer far more easily.

So what now? The flights are booked, the visa applications are with the Chinese, and the IPC have confirmed that James can definitely been seen in China in February. Until then, we’re keeping positive, ski training as much as we can and trying not to think about it.

So thank you – every single one of you – for your support. It has given us the strength to keep fighting and to see this to its conclusion. We are 110% committed in our ski racing career, and hope to do you proud in the future.

Thank you.

This story first appeared on Medium on 05/01/2020.

James and Alice ski training in Austria, 2019
James and Alice ski training in Austria, 2019

#blind #sport #internationalparalympiccommittee #skiing #skiracing #visuallyimpaired #paralympic #adaptivesport #adaptiveathlete #disabledskiing

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