ROSEISLE, Man. — As Jesse Bachinsky powered to the finish line of the Manitoba Games cross-country skiing race, every stride he took carved out a little track of history.
At just 15, Bachinsky is believed to be the first vision-impaired athlete to compete in cross-country ski races in Manitoba.
'He does everything else that teenage boys do'
It seems surprising this barrier should just now fall. It surprised Bachinsky too, back in January, when he entered another race at Birch Ski Area and organizers announced him as the first vision-impaired skier ever to compete. He's brand-new to the sport, though he's taken to it as a fish to water: On Monday, he finished second in his age group in the 7.5-kilometre classic race.
When he glided past the finish line, a grin stretched across his face. His final time, 35:50.01, was seven minutes shorter than his previous crack at the Birch course, so the race was a resounding success.
"I had really a lot of fun," Bachinsky said, cheeks still flushed from the rush of the race. "At first, I was behind this girl, and then I passed her. It was really good. Every time I do more, it's getting way better and easier."
His left eye offers him no useful vision; his right, just a little. He keeps his sunglasses on during the race, as the icy light of the winter sky bothers his eyes. As far as his mother, Tamara, can tell, it's been this way since he was a baby. So he doesn't know any other way to get around, and besides, being vision-impaired hardly slows him down. He skateboards, he bikes, he teaches kids how to snowboard the slopes of Kenora's Mount Evergreen.
Many of the kids he skis with didn't even know he was vision-impaired, until someone told them.
"We have just never treated Jesse like he has a disability," Tamara said, as she bounced between volunteer officiating duties at the Manitoba Games. "He does everything else that teenage boys do, and we've just always stood back and let him try what he wants to try, and trusted that he knows what's best for himself."
To discover that, Bachinsky has a little help: sometimes it's his brother Jarod, 10, telling him where to go. In races it's his coach, Pam McDonald, who skies beside him as a guide: she wears a bright-yellow vest and carries a microphone to call out advice on when to turn and where to place his skis. Through it all, Bachinsky is learning to feel the way the snow tracks under his feet and how to shift his weight to compensate for the left side he cannot see.
For McDonald, a close friend of Bachinsky's family, the guide job is a perfect fit. Not only is she a veteran coach with Kenora's Nordic Trails program, but she has years of experience working with kids with unique physical or cognitive needs. With Bachinsky, she is learning too: Learning his body language, learning his tendencies, learning how she can help him navigate the bridge between desire and ability.
That last part is key. "People don't know what people's capability is," McDonald said. "We always look at it as un-abling them. I'm an abler. With Jesse, his mother has never un-abled him. I think that's how come he's as gifted as he is... I think integration is getting better. It's an ongoing battle, but people are much more accepting. And I think it comes from us parents, and families around that see this, that it will improve in time."
So far, that has proven true, as Manitoba's cross-country ski community has moved to embrace Bachinsky, and it doesn't stop at cheers. When Manitoban ski organizers learned he was interested in competing, they sprang for McDonald's voice amplifier; they hope he will be able to crack their Canada Games team next year. That opportunity shines bright on Bachinsky's radar, so McDonald is prepping a rigorous training program for the spring.
And as Bachinsky skis into his own spot in history, he is also helping carve out a little more space for people of all abilities to compete.
"Watching him over the years, it's really hard for (vision-impaired athletes) to find that one thing that works for them," Tamara Bachinsky said. "When they do, and the facilities are available and the coaching's available, it's a whole new world opened up to them."