Blind Duo of the Year, U.S. Paralympic Athlete Kevin Burton and Brandon Ashby
12.01.2017 | Megan Ganim
The ability to move freely through time and space is a luxury most of us take for granted. When we click into our ski boots or snowboard bindings we don’t think twice about the ability we have to embrace sheer exhilaration of a controlled mass in motion. We are the mass and the speed quickly forging down an alpine descent is our motion. We touch, we see, we take it all in and make conscious self-directed decisions about where we want to arc our skis. But what happens when you begin to lose your eyesight and you can no longer make these motion and flow relationship decisions without a safety guide skiing right in front of you along the way? When Kevin Burton, a now U.S. Paralympic Alpine National Team athlete, began losing his eyesight in 2008, at age 26, from a hereditary degenerative disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa, he took to skiing with adaptive programs. He had not been on the slopes since he was a teenager trying to snowboard in his home state of Colorado.
“Racing is a rush and I love going fast. I love the G Forces that you feel and the amazing places that being on the U.S. Paralympic Team has taken me. I’ve skied in the Andes, I’ve skied in the Alps, Korea, all over North America now,” said Burton. As a visually impaired person, I can’t drive anymore and there are few things that I can do where I get to go at a high speed while being in total control of myself. Skiing in a downhill course where we’re going 60 to 70 miles per hour where nobody is steering for me is a really cool feeling.”
What makes the sport that much more thrilling for Burton, and maybe even gives him the competitive edge a lot of racers struggle with, is that he can’t tell how fast he’s going at any given time. This, he says, allows him to let go of all fear. His eyesight is not privy to peripheral vision and instead can hone in on small amounts of tunnel vision. He doesn’t see the racers next to the course, he can’t see how wide the course might be, no fences, no coaches, he simply skis and in his own words, ‘whatever happens, happens’.
“[This lack of fear] allows me to push myself a little more than normal if maybe I were to realize the speeds we’re hitting and that’s why my best events are downhill and Super-G. I am a newer skier with technical events and maybe even a little bit more timid,” explained Burton.
Burton’s guide, Brandon Ashby, who’s ski racing background stems as far as racing USCSA for CU Boulder, says he has never loved GS this much before in his life until working with Burton as his guide.
“I just started giggling over the microphone when we were in Hintertux, Austria for training and I’m leading Kevin down the hill and we’re hitting speeds up to fifty miles per hour, I was having so much fun I couldn’t get enough of it,” said Ashby “Every time we’re done training gates together, I’m ready to get back out there.” .
Fortunately, the duo gets to do just that all winter. During training weeks, they start their day together with an early morning breakfast, make their way out to the ski hill for the afternoon to run gates, hit the gym for a few hours. They joke that by 8:00 they’re so tired they’re ready for bed. The two spend almost every waking moment together and are thankful their backgrounds mesh so well. It sparks a dynamic neither of them were expecting when they met on a blind date in the Munich Airport in early October.
Burton had lost his previous guide, Chris Tatsuno, who had to opt out this season due to a ruptured achilles. Burton and Tatsuno had raced together as a duo for the last three years and even made their way to the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games for Biathlon and Cross Country before taking up Alpine Racing. Ashby stepped in on a whim after receiving a phone call from a U.S. National Coach asking if he’d be interested.
Both Ashby and Burton are from Colorado and have a military background having been deployed in Iraq likely crossing paths without even realizing it. Burton served in 2005 through 2007 as an Arabic Linguist and Ashby was deployed beginning during the initial 2003 Iraq invasion in Crash Fire Rescue. The two feel that they have a foot up when it comes to communicating with each other after serving in the military where you’re around a group of men 24/7 for months on end. They say it’s similar to how they operate in the winter season together.
“[In the military] you learn to rely on each other and cohabitate and this creates a really strong bond,” explained Ashby. “That’s why our relationship has worked out so well and so quickly is we have both been already put in those difficult situations and we know how to treat a person when you’re around them for those long periods of time.”
Teamwork is essentially the mojo that the duo operates with to improve both of their skiing every day and clearly, something’s working.
“We share a sense of humor and actually have a similar routine which are probably some of the most important things,” Burton chimed in while Ashby chuckled a very agreeable laugh.
Before taking the job as a guide for Burton, Ashby really wasn’t sure what he was signing up for. He explained that at first, he thought he would be working for Burton as a guide, but the last few months have proven him wrong.. The two are a complete team. Both are in the testing pool for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and both could get a violation. While at the same time if they medal in the Paralympic Games in Korea this year, each would receive medals.
The duo is relatively new working together but according to Burton, things are going much better than expected.
“[Ashby] does a pretty good job and he’s learning that this is a partnership. Everything happens so fast in ski racing and by the time he skis something, processes it, and is able to verbalize it, I can try to prepare for what he says is coming up in a very short period of time,” said Burton. “He gets to learn how I react to stuff and will start to understand me simply through the sounds I make on my headset rather than words, even.”
Ashby is learning to verbalize the internal dialogue he has through a headset that connects them. When he thinks about the terrain coming up, direction of the course, any combinations there might be, he has to prepare Burton for what’s to come.
“He has to ski the race line and keep me out of trouble but we also have to worry about how far apart we are. If we get too far apart then we could get disqualified and if I mess up a turn and scrub speed, I need to be quick to tell him so he can micromanage his speed and I can catch up but also keep him pulling me down the hill,” said Burton.
Ashby explained that of course they can get physically worn out, but it’s also a mental game more than anything.
At NASTAR National Pacesetting Trials this year, the team set the National Standard for all visually impaired athletes across the nation who want to race NASTAR. The U.S. National Team has sent paralympic athletes to the trials for the last three years as a way to set times for each category of impairment but also as a recruiting tool. The Director of the Paralympic Team will watch NASTAR results all season long and capture athletes attention who might be interested in racing for the Paralympic Team in the future.
“We monitor the NASTAR online results all the time and manage to get some new kids into the program. We’ve been encouraging adaptive skiers and skiers with disabilities to get them to run NASTAR and utilize those National Pacesetters to compare how the other skiers do against them,” said Director, High Performance, U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding Paralympic Kevin Jardine. “This way we can gauge where they stack up against the able-bodied skiers and use it as a gauge to see how far they’d be off guys like Kevin Burton and whoever else might be there.
This season Ashby and Burton will be traveling across the world for World Cup races and NorAms and hope to be heading into the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games in March. With as much tenacity as the two have had an early season (and good race points), they’re only bound for ecstatic results this season.
“Kevin has quickly risen as a starting ski racer to being one of the best athletes in the world. He actually competed for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team in Sochi so he’s obviously very athletic and he’s worked extremely hard on his techniques and he’s not afraid to go fast.