Hard Day on the Slopes? Try Skiing Blind 

click to enlarge street03_blind_skier_100.jpg

The blur of Matt Annecchini's highway cone-colored vest is not exactly what fellow skiers want to see shooting down a ski slope at 35 mph. The vest's bold-faced black lettering fairly well shouts: "Blind Skier."

But for Annecchini, 20 -- blind since birth and autistic to boot — that vest is as much a warning to fellow skiers as it is a badge of achievement.

"We get a lot of stares," says Annecchini's dad, Mike, who acts as his son's trainer and field guide by skiing on a 10-foot tether behind his son, calling directions ("Left! Right!") to ensure the safety of other skiers. He says he's heard comments like, "I've tried closing my eyes on the slopes, but this is ridiculous."

For the past five years, Matt Annecchini has trained with his dad as a competitive skier, winning a handful of medals at the Special Olympics Virginia Alpine Skiing Championship events — and trying for more in this year's events Jan. 28-29 at Wintergreen Resort.

Add to that Annecchini's wins as a competitive swimmer, ice and roller skater, bowler, soccer and basketball player, and you have a modern-day Jim Thorpe. Or at least a very active blind man willing to hurtle himself and spherical objects at high speeds.

Kara Hailey, the program's ski coach, works with more than a dozen other athletes with disabilities. Annecchini is the only blind skier she's ever seen: "I think it's pretty rare," she says. "As far as I know for the Virginia conference [of Special Olympics], there is not another blind skier."

And he's good, Hailey says, judging Annecchini among the top three skiers in her group. "It's beautiful to watch," she says. "It's monotonous almost, how smooth he is down the slopes."

Nearly as amazing as the sight of him on skis is that Annecchini's training was nearly accident-free. His dad recalls him falling only twice — though one of those falls two years ago could have turned out far more disastrously.

"It was a bad day," his dad says grimly. The two were doing a practice run when a snowboarder landed directly on the harness that tethered the two together. The impact ripped the reins out of Mike's hands and knocked him flat, leaving Matt speeding downhill without his "eyes."

"Luckily, he hit a snow fence instead of a tree," Mike Annecchini says.

Asked for his version of the story, Matt Annecchini rocks a bit, but says nothing. He changes the topic: "Do you know Def Leppard?"

He sings a few bars from a song off the "Pyromania" album before listing the rest of the record's songs in rapid succession.

"Next year we're going to try body surfing," says his dad, who was active biking and skateboarding in his youth and at 42 sees competing with his son as a way to tap a 20-year-old's adrenaline: "I'm just getting started again."

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