Krystin Paine Contributing Writer 

    Mackenzie MacDonald, a UMF junior and alpine skier, has been invited to train in Breckenridge, Colorado to ski for the second year in a row and hasn’t let her skiing skills be hindered by a visual impairment caused by ocular albinism.

    Ocular albinism is a genetic condition that affects a person’s pigmentation in the hair, skin, and eyes. This reduction of pigmentation in the iris, the colored part of the eye, is what causes MacDonald’s impaired vision. It is a recessive gene disorder, meaning that both parents have to be carriers of this gene. This gives the child a 25% chance of inheriting the condition.

    “This is how all recessive gene disorders work,” MacDonald said. “My vision is kind of hard to explain, so I have no depth perception at all and very little peripheral vision.”

    MacDonald explained that her visual acuity is 20/200 with glasses. This means that whatever a person with perfect vision can see at 200 feet, she can only see at 20 feet with glasses. “I honestly have no idea what it is without them, just that it’s worse. This also is the exact acuity that you have to have to be considered legally blind,” MacDonald said. “It also means that I will never be able to drive. The law in the state of Maine is that you must have 20/70 vision at the very least.”

    Last December, MacDonald left the Maine mountains to ski at the Disabled Sports, USA’s Ski Spectacular in Colorado. “There’s so many people with so many different types of disabilities [and abilities]. It amazes me to hear all their stories and how they got to where they are,” she said.

    Feeling incredibly grateful for the experiences, she loved connecting with all of the people she met there. She loved that despite the different situations, all of the people worked hard to be there and were working even harder to succeed while being there. “It’s just amazing and I hope everyone can experience something like that. It just opens your mind up to so much,” MacDonald said. She even met people who had the same dream as her, to become a Paralympic alpine skier.

    Jenny Hancock, also a UMF junior and skier, agreed with MacDonald and said that MacDonald’s future was the paralympics. “I see a bright future ahead for Mack. I want her to believe in herself as much as I believe in her, have her dream big, and not look behind her.” Hancock said. 

Mackenzie MacDonald skiing during a race. (Photo courtesy of Disabled Sports USA)

    MacDonald and Hancock met spring semester of their freshman year when they were both on ski team and were ski coaches together for snowcats. “Who knew our short little car rides would turn into us becoming best friends,” said Hancock. “Skiing with Mackenzie is truly inspiring to me. No words describe Mack and her skiing. It brings tears to my eyes talking about it. It instantly puts a smile on my face.”

    Hancock was ecstatic when talking about MacDonald’s invite to go back again this year to train because it was a great experience for her last year. “Mackenzie got a taste of different conditions we don’t always see here and it will be awesome for her to learn more about herself in the progression,” Hancock said. “I could feel her passion, and happiness this sport brought her. Mack has improved a ton since I have known her. I am very proud of her frustrations that she has overcome!”

    While in Colorado, MacDonald had a guide with her, Brie Marquis. Marquis’ job is to either ski in front of MacDonald and have MacDonald follow her, or behind MacDonald, to help watch and improve her skills. “For me, my guide skis in front of me and I follow them at a very close distance,” MacDonald said. “My guide tells me if there’s going to be a pitch change, when the hill gets steeper, when the snow consistency changes, soft to hard or fluffy snow or vise versa, and bumps and stuff like that.”

    “We talk through a headset radio setup. So I can hear her and she can hear me. This is something new we have implemented for me in the last couple years. It’s different for every visually impaired athlete according to their abilities,” said MacDonald. “It’s a really cool thing to watch how each athlete uses their guide because everyone has different needs.”

    “I believe that having Brie step up and wanting to be Mack’s guide is awesome,” Hancock said, “I think [Makenzie] has grown and is still growing, but having consistency with Brie being her guide is wonderful.”

    Marquis, not only MacDonald’s guide but a UMF skier as well, agreed with Hancock when talking about being MacDonald’s guide and going to the event with her. “It was an incredible experience. For this event, guiding Mack meant meeting all new people and being immersed into the Paralympic community was so cool,” Marquis said. 

    To Marquis, being a guide for the first time was not easy. “Last collegiate season, Mack and I did not have a microphone on our helmets so that made it a bit harder,” Marquis said. “I can only be about a gate length ahead of Mack in order for her to see me so not having a microphone meant I have to turn around just about every gate.”

     “At Paralympic nationals, we did have a microphone which made the task a lot easier. However, I still had to turn around a lot. It really just meant that Mack could give me feedback in the course versus at the bottom.” Marquis said. “The toughest part in my mind is that I cannot fall. My top priority is getting Mack down the hill so me falling makes that impossible. It’s a tough job to be honest, but oh my goodness, it is so worth it.”

    Marquis and MacDonald both skied on the Alpine Ski team at UMF. “Freshman year, Mack was quiet around our team and didn’t have a consistent guide,” Marquis said. “Last year she opened up, socially as well as in her skiing ability. At our college races, she was beating a handful of able bodied skiers and her confidence in herself grew so much. She made huge strides in her skiing and I cannot wait to see her keep improving.”

     MacDonald will be leaving to train in Colorado from Dec. 9 to 15. Marquis will be joining her to be her guide once again.