WHISTLER, B.C. — Every time Viviane Forest skis she puts her trust in guide Lindsay Debou, a person she can barely see.
“We use a lot of our feelings and our guts,” said Forest, who has just four per cent vision. “That works for most humans, whether you have sight or not.”
The bond between Forest and Debou was evident Sunday when the two combined for a silver medal in the women’s slalom race for the visually impaired at the Paralympic Games.
The moment they crossed the finish line the two women embraced. They then turned and waved their poles at the crowd.
On the course, Debou is Forest’s eyes. She sees what Forest can’t, letting her know about pitches or rolls, and warns her of hazards.
“Viviane communicates how fast we are going,” said Debou, 26, of Whistler, B.C. “She says ’let’s go for it a little bit more’ and I put the gas pedal down and we go for it.
“If we are in a steep zone, I pull it back a little bit.”
Guides and skiers are required to remain within a specific distance of each other during an alpine race. Usually the guide goes first, but in some cases they trail the skier.
In the downhill and super-giant slalom only one turn can separate the guide and skier. In the slalom and giant slalom that increases to two turns.
The two can talk using two-way radios.
Forest said Debou shows nerves of steel on the hill.
“She is a very strong skier and we communicate very well together,” said the 30-year-old from Edmonton.
“In slalom she’s not afraid. I can even touch her ski and she’s still got no problems.”
Chris Williamson of Markham, Ont., has worked with his guide Nick Brush of Kelowna, B.C., for three years. The pair placed sixth in the men’s slalom Sunday.
Like a marriage, respect and communication are key elements for a healthy relationship between guide and skier, said Williamson.
“You have to like each other, otherwise when you are on the road like we are for four weeks, you are going to drive each other nuts,” he said. “If you can’t talk to each other away from the hill, and you can’t talk about what you are about to do, then when you are on the hill racing it’s not going to work.
“You have to be able to at least admire each other.”
Melding the style and ability of two individuals into one competitive unit can sometimes be a challenge.
“There are always things to work out,” said Brush, 21. “Finding that place in the middle that works for both of us with our skiing technique.”
Williamson, who won a silver and bronze medal at the 2006 Turin Paralympics, said Bush has made him a better skier.
“For his age he has a lot of maturity on snow,” said Williamson, 37. “He knows exactly where he is going and what to do.
“Slalom is probably the most difficult event for guides and he does very well at it.”
Things don’t always work smoothly.
Cross-country skier Robin McKeever remembers the first time he acted as a guide for his brother Brian.
“Brian went off a course and ran into a tree the first time I ever officially guided him in training,” McKeever said with a chuckle.
“A day later, after getting some good treatment, he won his first World Cup where he was guided by his older brother.”
American skier Danelle Umstead has her husband Rob act as her guide.
“I think it’s a better dimension because the trust factor is already there,” said Danelle. “No matter what, he is going to take care of me all the way down the course.”
Whatever differences the couple may have in a race or training, they don’t let it intrude on their marriage.
“We just work through it and talk about it and try to make it better for the next time we go up the hill,” Danelle said. “It doesn’t become a big issue.”
Forest and Debou became partners almost by necessity about one year ago at Whistler.
The person Debou was guiding for had quit the sport due to injury. Forest was looking for someone after her previous guide quit because his wife was having a baby.
After just three days of training the pair won their first race, at the world championships.
“It sent the right message,” said Debou.