Lining up for the skate pursuit race at the Wisconsin High School Nordic Ski Championships in Cable, Cody Schneider was not nervous about his finishing time and place — he had graduated high school last year.
He felt the familiar nerves, but this time they were not for himself. This time they were for a skier named George Tuttle, a senior from Drummond High School, who was about to take off 83 places behind the leader.
George and his brother Joe are visually impaired twins. Their disability has done little to slow them down on skis, but it does require each of them to have a guide out on the course.
Cue Cody Schneider.
Schneider graduated from Lakeland Union High School last May and has gone on to compete collegiately for the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
He was nearing the end of his freshman season when his coach Maria Stuber sent out an email saying there was an opportunity to guide two visually impaired athletes at the Wisconsin State Meet.
“I just jumped on it immediately,” Schneider said. “I’ve always wanted to have a way to give back a little bit to the ski community and so I saw that as my way in.”
Schneider and another freshman teammate, Nathan Smoller, accepted Stuber’s offer. Roughly one week later on Feb. 9, the morning of the state pursuit race, the two boys met the twin brothers from Drummond.
Schneider paired up with George; Smoller paired up with Joe.
The athletes skied a few warm-up laps together, the twins teaching their new partners how they prefer to communicate during the race. The twins had worked with two other guides during the classic race the day before.
“It’s not so much a concrete set of commands,” Schneider said, explaining guiding preferences are unique to each visually impaired skier. “What (George) recommended for me when we were warming up was to try to stay 5 to 10 meters ahead and he’ll say something if I’m going too fast, but if I’m going too slow, then he’ll just start clinking my poles a little and that’s normally a tell-tale that I could speed up.”
The other commands were straightforward: “left” or “right.”
Although learning the guiding commands was simple, he still had one large concern about the race.
“I was really worried about making them crash,” he said. “That was a big worry of mine.”
Luckily George was well-accustomed to having a guide ski with him.
“If you kept them in the middle of the course, it was easy to just say, “left, left, left,” and they would just turn according to how many times you said it,” Schneider said.
He would also tell George when there was an uphill or a downhill.
“For the most part, they can see what technique you’re doing, so they’ll do whatever technique you’re doing,” he said.
At the time of the race, Schneider took his place a few meters ahead of George in front of the starting line. As soon as the clock hit George’s starting time, Schneider took off.
“It was almost a good practice for any other race that I’m doing because I wouldn’t say there were nearly as many jitters, but you can still feel the atmosphere no matter if you’re nervous or not,” he said.
And although he wasn’t worried about his individual performance, the pressure was still on.
“You don’t want to screw it up for a visually impaired skier,” he said.
Schneider and George worked together and continued to move up throughout the 7K race.
Schneider quickly realized the most difficult part of his job was not keeping track of George, but rather paying attention to other racers.
“With the format of the race, it became pretty clear that there was going to be a lot of skiers really close, compact together,” he said. “Probably the biggest challenge was figuring out how to navigate, not only around the course, but around people.”
Whenever Schneider and George caught up to a competitor, Schneider drifted over to the side of the trail and if he saw George closing the gap, he knew it was time to pass.
With Schneider’s help, George had a strong performance in the skate race. The pair was able to move up five places and George crossed the finish line in 79th place for the pursuit after starting in 84th position. Based on time alone, he finished 68th in the skate race.
“He said I did a really nice job,” Schneider said. “I was really ecstatic to hear that I did the job right.”
Joe and his guide, Smoller, were also able to move up during the skate race, passing one skier. Joe finished in 112th place.
Schneider immediately offered to guide either of the twins in future races.
“Maybe if they need guides for the Birkie,” Schneider said, referring to the American Birkebeiner, a 50K race from Cable to Hayward, which attracts thousands of skiers each year.
“I think that would be a ridiculously cool experience to try to figure that out,” he said.
Schneider highly recommended the experience of guiding for not only visually impaired athletes, but athletes with any type of disability.
“It’s such a cool experience to guide for people,” he said.
As for the rest of his own season, Schneider himself had plans to ski this year’s Birkie, which takes place tomorrow, but those plans changed Monday after finding out he’d officially qualified for the Great Lakes Junior National Team.
Qualifying for Junior Nationals has been one of Schneider’s primary goals this season. He raced in a number of Junior National Qualifier races throughout the season, the final races taking place this past weekend in Houghton, Mich.
Schneider will get the chance to compete against the nation’s most talented young skiers in mid-March during a week full of racing. The national competition will take place in Truckee, Calif.
This is Schneider’s first Junior Nationals team.
Delaney FitzPatrick may be reached via email at [email protected].