Werner Britsch is a man of great intellect, exhaustive determination and focus.
That’s a shorthand description of the longtime Cuyahoga Falls resident.
His age aside, Werner is an incredible poster boy for the truism: Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
That’s because the 91-year-old World War II veteran — who is blind — is passionate about skiing.
Now, thanks to Three Trackers of Ohio, Werner and others with all manner of physical disabilities are able to do so on a regular basis.
Werner — he in the cobalt-blue parka and protective, black helmet — would be out on the snow-covered slopes every day if he could, his ski instructors insist.
Three Trackers Ohio is an all-volunteer nonprofit network dedicated to promoting outdoor recreational activities to persons with physical disabilities.
Three Trackers Ohio member Rick Luft of Cuyahoga Falls introduced me to Werner, a retired NASA engineer “who skis nearly four hours at a time with a half-hour or 45-minute break in between.” That’s only at the instructors’ insistence.
As is always the case, Werner — in a neon-orange vest with words “BLIND SKIER” to alert others on the sometimes crowded slopes — is flanked by two veteran skiers, in companion orange “GUIDE” vests. They’re volunteers from Three Trackers Ohio; an instructor and a bodyguard who serve as his eyes. On this day they were Heidi Lamb of Rocky River and Beth Zachman of Canton, respectively.
The instructor — using the clock as a reference — tells Werner where to position himself as he traverses down the hills, calling out 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock and 2 o’clock and Werner — no stranger to the slopes when he could see — seems to instinctively know just where to turn his body and his skis.
At times, especially when they’re in the walk mode and directing him “to the left, to the left; to the right, to the right,” it almost sounds like they’re giving line-dance instructions. Something I’m certain Werner also could do, if he was so inclined.
‘Didn’t stop living’
“He has such a great attitude,” Zachman praised Werner.
“I really want to get back more into parallel skiing,” Werner said as he rattled off his wish list for the slopes. “But I really have to get over my fear of speed, making all those turns. But it will happen...”
Werner began losing his vision gradually when he was in his 70s.
“By 2004, the road signs had become impossible to read. So I put the car in the garage one day and stopped driving entirely,” he said matter-of-factly.
“But I didn’t stop living. If you do that, it’s inviting death,” he sermonized, adding, “And I’m not ready for that!”
So much joy yet to be seized and squeezed out of life is his mantra.
“You almost have to kick him off the slopes,” Lamb added. “He pushes it to the last minute. It’s like he has this internal clock.”
Werner — who immigrated with his parents to America from Germany — began a real love affair with skiing in 1943 when he was drafted in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Infantry Division in WWII, stationed in Colorado. “I learned to do both technical climbing and skiing,” he said, journeying back in time.
He honed those skills long after separating from the military.
Lamb said she would label Werner these days as an intermediate skier: “The hardest thing he has to learn is controlling his speed.”
Wedging his feet or putting them in what is known as “the snow plow position” helps keep his speed down,” Zachman explained.
Mentally, physically active
A huge proponent of the move-it-or-lose-it philosophy, Werner — sporting a zip-front sweatshirt in Team USA colors under his parka — is a regular at the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium, working on multiple pieces of equipment. He’s especially fond of the recumbent elliptical. “It keeps me pretty busy,” Werner said. “The one thing I don’t do is weight lifting. But I do have light weights I use from time to time at home.”
Werner — who is divorced and the proud father of a son and a daughter — helped author many technical papers during his NASA career. So, he continues to keep himself mentally active by availing himself to using and enjoying the computer: “I use it to some degree. But I’m a lousy typist.”
“I want to get back to playing chess,” he continued. “I used to be good at it …That’s available on the computer too.”
Werner also enjoys golfing through Edwin Shaw’s Challenge Golf program. “I think I’m a much better skier than a golfer,” he confessed. “But I like them both.”
Not surprisingly, he gives high marks to both Three Trackers Ohio and Challenge Golf and thinks more people should give them a try.
Dan Lipka of Medina — leader of Three Trackers Ohio — said his group is so invested in its mission that several members soon will be leaving for Aspen for the Winter Sports Carnival featuring all disabled veterans.
Werner’s personal advice to anyone who has received the daunting diagnosis of macular degeneration or anything else traumatically disabling?
“Don’t give up! Keep doing what it is you like to do. And living your life!”
Take it from someone who not only walks the walk, but also skis.
For more information on Three Trackers Ohio please visit www.3trackers.org.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org