Posted on 17 March 2022
A huge congratulations to our Paralympics team returning from Beijing this month.
Winter sports are dangerous and high skilled enough with fully functioning sight. Imagine how much more skill and bravery it must take doing these sports with a visual impairment.
This year 3 athletes competed with visual impairment, all in Alpine skiing events. They were Meena Fitzpatrick, Millie Knight and Neil Simpson.
Due to the nature of their impairments all ski with guides who go out Infront and give visual and verbal assistance of the course layout. These guides are key to their success and have built a relationship over may years and are even relations in some cases. Guides also win the same medal as their Para athlete.
Menna Fitzpatrick at only 23 years old became team GB’s most successful Paralympian winning Silver and Bronze medals. Meena was born with folds in her retina’s. When you are born with a condition it is known as congenital. These conditions occur during gestation when something doesn’t form quite as it should. In this case congenital retinal folds are thought to be the result of the vascular system (blood supply) of the retina developing issues and therefore folds are formed. In Meena’s case this has resulted in her having no vision in her left eye and limited sight (approx. 5%) in her right eye since birth.
She learned to ski whilst on family holidays from the age of five with her father acting as her guide. She was discovered by a coach whilst skiing at an indoor slope in 2010 and now has 4 gold medals, 6 silver medals and 4 bronze between Olympic and world championship events to her name.
Neil Simpson, age 19 won team GB’s only Gold medal in this years games along with another in bronze. Neil also has a congenital condition called Nystagmus. Nystagmus is a condition where the eyes move involuntarily. This movement is usually either a jerky/shaking movement or pendular. The faster the movement the more vision is effected. Quite often when looking to one side the movement is slowed (this is called a null zone) so people with this condition adopt head postures like a head turn so they are looking towards this side more often than not. It is useful to set up their visual world around this null zone sitting them on the correct side of a classroom or allowing them to sit on the correct side of a cinema for example. The constant movement of the eyes blurs the vision so acuity is reduced but unless associated with another eye condition, field of vision is full.
Neil started skiing at age 4 on dry slopes near his home in Scotland, his guide is his brother Andrew. Neil made his profession debut only last year and has already got the Gold and bronze from Beijing and a Silver from 2021 world championships under his belt.
Last but no means least is Millie Knight. Millie is also 23 years old and won bronze in her event. Millie was not born with sight loss so it is classified as acquired. At age 1 she developed an infection which lead to the loss of sight in her right eye. Unfortunately the same then happened to the left eye by age 6. The result was extensive scarring on both retinas. “I have no central vision, and a little peripheral sight in each eye. I can’t see much when I’m skiing as everything is moving. What sight I do have, is clearer when I’m stationary.” Millie told an article in 2018. The extent of her vision is limited to peripheral only and reported to be in her left eye she has 5–10% peripheral vision, and in her right eye she has 5%. To understand what she sees put 2 fingers in front of each eye so they are touching your lashes but not the eye itself, then look straight ahead with eyes open. The fingers will block your central vision and all that you will notice is vision in your peripheral field, even doing this you will be able to see more than 5% of remaining field.
Millie started skiing at the same time her vision was deteriorating, loving the experience on a family holiday she contacted the charity, Disability Snowsports UK who helped her on her journey and since then she has won 2 Gold medals, 6 Silver and 4 Bronze across Olympic and world championship events.
These amazing athletes truly show how anything is possible and any barrier can be overcome. They are an inspiration to us all.
Pictures above show Menna, Neil and Millie in descending order.