Determination Leads to Success

By:Barbara Fuller Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration determination-success

When Nancy Stevens was 11, a friend put a playing card in her bicycle spokes, watched in her rearview mirror, and called out directions to Nancy, who pedaled just behind. Nancy and her friend thought maybe they could ride their bicycles to school together—not a particularly novel idea for most children. But for Nancy, the idea was enlightening. Up until then, she had ridden only on the sidewalks, feeling for the cracks in the pavement to keep her orientation. Might she really ride beyond her small neighborhood?

Nancy Stevens is blind—and has been since birth. She is 49 years young, five-foot-even, with a constant beaming smile.

“My parents were creative,” she says. “They just wanted to figure out a way to do this safely.” They provided her with a tandem to ride with her younger sister, Lisa, and she continued to ride that tandem throughout college. Thus began Nancy’s belief in herself and the athletic ambitions that would carry her around the world.

Now, some 38 years later, Nancy has skied for the U.S. Paralympic team at Nagano, Japan, has won three world championships as a blind triathlete and has earned numerous other awards as an international athlete. She has also inspired hundreds of others to become involved in sports as a disabled athlete or to assist disabled athletes. Through her skills workshops and motivational speaking, she reaches out to athletes and others with a message: Set a goal and make it happen. I did it, and so can you.

“I have been successful for two reasons,” she says matter-of-factly. “One is that I had the support of my family. The other is that I learned to have confidence in myself through sports.”

That confidence transcends the ski slope beneath her or the bike trail in front. “I figured, if I can do all this,” she says, “then surely I could find employment. I want others to find that, too.” Her career life has taken her from athletic training, to managing an independent living organization, to facilitating training clinics for other blind athletes and guides. She wants others to have the opportunity to build that same confidence she has known.

Nancy has skied for the U.S. Paralympic team at Nagano, Japan; has won three world championships as a blind triathlete; and has earned numerous other awards as an international athlete.

Nancy recalls one Christmas when she, her parents, and four of her six siblings (two others were away at college) all got cross-country skis. Near their home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, her father would lead the group and the others would take turns guiding Nancy, then 11 and fifth in the line-up of seven children. With bells on their poles and calls of “right” or “left” from just in front of her, her brothers and sisters would guide her as she struggled to find tracks in the ungroomed snow. She hated those outings at first; she recalls her frustration and dismay at holding the others back. But eventually she got the hang of the sport and grew to love it. It was good exercise, and she enjoyed the quiet outdoor time in the woods with her family.

During high school and then college, she took on the faster-paced sport of downhill skiing. While spending a semester abroad in Germany as part of her Kalamazoo College education, she convinced ski instructors at Innsbruck, Austria, to let her teach them to guide her. With a laugh, she says now that she wasn’t sure they understood at first what she was asking in her broken German—but they caught on. Later, back in the States, she moved to Colorado “to be a ski bum” after graduating from college. There she found a new home at Winter Park, training grounds for many disabled skiers. She intended to stay a year, but doors kept opening. “Heck, if I can teach ski guides in Austria,” she told herself, “surely I can get a job.”

determination-success

Nancy did get a job. She began her Colorado residence in food service at Winter Park but soon moved on, and in 1992, she took a position as Founding Director of High Country Options in Frisco, Colorado. The program, founded by the Developmental Disabilities Resource Center in Denver, was established to help disabled individuals in the mountain region build skills and find employment. Too often, Nancy says, people would tell newly disabled individuals to move to Denver so they would have access to services. But people didn’t want to move to Denver. So Nancy spent her time talking with social service agencies and with people from the surrounding towns, distributing informational brochures, and providing leads for resources to help people develop independent living skills and obtain access services. High Country Options hoped to serve at least 10 people in its first year, but within six months, Nancy had attracted 37 clients. Over 5 1/2 years, she assisted more than 100 individuals and provided more than 50 disability awareness programs to children, businesses, and government entities. She recalls working with one particular woman, newly disabled, who had refused to leave her house after having a stroke. The woman eventually found her way back into the community and entered employment at a recreation facility childcare. “She took baby steps,” Nancy says enthusiastically, “and then she took a great job.”

After earning three gold medals at the January 1998 Paralympic trials and participating as a member of the U.S. disabled cross country ski team in Nagano, Nancy turned to bicycling—back to the tandem that had liberated her as a young girl. Now, though, she was to pedal from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, one of 21 riders to cycle the full 10 weeks and 3,000 miles on a journey intended to motivate girls. The ride was sponsored by Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization that promotes personal growth through experience and challenge in the wilderness. Throughout the fall of 2000, cyclists crossed the country, giving presentations at schools and for girls’ groups along the way and encouraging young listeners to trust in themselves and to get involved in low-impact activities.

With skiing and bicycling mastered, Nancy moved on to the next challenge: a triathlon. She later went on to take the gold at world championship triathlons in 2005 at Honolulu, Hawaii; in 2006 at Lausanne, Switzerland; and in 2007 at Hamburg, Germany.

With skiing and bicycling mastered, Nancy moved on to the next challenge: a triathlon. Without even knowing it, she and her then-guide, Nancy Reinisch, qualified for the world championships. She later went on to take the gold at world championship triathlons in 2005 at Honolulu, Hawaii; in 2006 at Lausanne, Switzerland; and in 2007 at Hamburg, Germany. From the beginning, she says, the U.S. Triathlon Association has included disabled participants at the same time and place as sighted participants. And throughout, Nancy has worked with guides, often helping to train them herself. “Nancy’s a very good teacher,” says Helen McQueeney, who raced with her in Switzerland. “She’s had so many guides. She just tells people what to do.” Helen was amazed by the spirit of the many disabled athletes she met in Switzerland. “They were all very upbeat,” she says, “very encouraging.”

Broadening her reach, Nancy next organized two Tri-It Triathlon Camps in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 2007 and 2008. Some seven or eight guides and seven or eight blind athletes participated in the event each year to swim, bicycle, and run. “For two years, [the camp] was the event of the spring,” says Carol McCurry, who had run with Nancy in Hawaii and who coached runners at the camp. When Nancy came to the Glenwood Springs community, Carol says, “she was this athlete, and everyone wanted to be with her. … She has a personality that draws people in. People would stand in line to help. … It just kind of changed your life.”

Although only guides who had competed in triathlons themselves were able to participate at the Tri-It camps, blind athletes could be novices. “Your job,” Nancy told the blind participants, “is to help me and to share with these sighted women. We’re all learning together.” Sighted guides tend to say, “Oh, let me do that for you,” Nancy says, but the blind person needs to learn not to let someone else do everything. Pairs need to be comfortable working together. On the clinic agenda were not only sports techniques and guidance for working together but also such practical skills as fixing a broken bike chain. “I wanted everybody to see that they could do a triathlon, that they could put all the pieces together,” Nancy says. She hoped that the women would share what they learned with others back in their home regions throughout Colorado, California, Utah, Maryland, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia.

“I’ve seen her work with people of all backgrounds and all abilities,” says Lori Miller, another blind athlete and world competitor who attended a Tri-It camp. “By demonstration, by talking, by sharing, by doing: She’s shown me and a lot of people that you just keep doing, no matter what.”

Now located in Bend, Oregon, Nancy continues her work to open up opportunities for disabled individuals. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she took a brief time out to focus on her health. But she has successfully battled the cancer and jumped back into work, fit and as positive as ever. From her home, where she lives with her chocolate lab Koko, she reaches out to her community. In January, she worked with Oregon Adaptive Sports to develop twin clinics to train guides for blind skiers, both Nordic and downhill. Although Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor has hosted disabled skiers for years, she says, she wanted to see more outreach to blind skiers in particular. “It used to be that Winter Park was ‘it’ for blind skiers,” she says. “But people don’t have to travel quite so far now. Now we have a choice.”

At the clinics, participants learned the basics of working with blind skiers and practiced techniques for guiding skiers. Next year, she hopes to repeat the clinics and also to host a ski camp for blind skiers at Mt. Bachelor. “I love encouraging people to get into sports,” she says, “and the more guides, the more opportunity.” She also admits, with her characteristic grin, that she has a selfish motive: “I want to have guides so that I can ski all I want to myself.”

Kendall Cook, Program Director for Oregon Adaptive Sports, says Nancy sometimes speaks to and holds the attention of 40 to 50 volunteers at a time. “It’s particularly inspiring for our volunteers to see someone with a disability coaching them,” he says. But people don’t really see her disability, he adds, because she is so comfortable in her work. She has very high levels of confidence and skill and is “the true model” of independence.

With more than 50 million disabled individuals in the country--and with newly disabled veterans returning from Iraq--it's more important than ever to provide opportunities so people will know what they can do.

Disabled individuals face obstacles beyond the obvious. Finding guides is one. Finding funding is another, Nancy says. “As a blind athlete, not only do I have to be committed to training 15 to 20 hours a week, but also I need to find other people to do that training.” In addition, disabled athletes need to fundraise for two people, not just for themselves. But with less than 25 percent of disabled individuals in the workforce, it is important to give people the confidence to perform, she says, both athletically and in the work world. A disabled athlete knows that she is able and can achieve other goals as well. With more than 50 million disabled individuals in the country—and with newly disabled veterans returning from Iraq—it’s more important than ever to provide opportunities so people will know what they can do.

When she is not leading training clinics or engaging in sports personally, Nancy gives motivational speeches and disability awareness workshops for schools, churches, and other organizations throughout the country. Through personal stories that hold listeners and get them laughing, through tips about etiquette in working with disabled individuals, through song as she plays her guitar, she engages and inspires. Her goal? “To give back to sports,” she says. “To help people get involved in sports.” And through that avenue: to help people get involved in life.

Barbara Fuller is Director of Editcetera, an association of freelance publishing specialists, based in Berkeley, CA. To contact her, see www.editcetera.com or email barbara@editcetera.com.