published Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Delfina Rodriguez feels new thrills on slopes

  • photo
    Delfina Rodriguez of Soddy-Daisy, left, hangs onto guide Natalie Burns while snowboarding at the adaptive ski clinic last month at Beech Mountain.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Delfina Rodriguez used to like going snowboarding but couldn’t get the hang of it. In four days last month at Beech Mountain in North Carolina, though, she had an “amazing” time in her delayed return to the sport.

She’s going to do more of it next month at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado.

Like when she went skydiving last October, the 30-year-old Soddy-Daisy resident enjoyed feeling the movement of her body and the brisk chill on her face as she made her descent. She just couldn’t see what she was doing.

Rodriguez is blind, robbed of sight by rapidly progressing diabetic retinopathy that began affecting her in March 2010.

“I’m completely in the dark,” she says. “I had three surgeries and two laser treatments, but nothing stopped it.”

But the darkness hasn’t stopped her, either. She regularly went on adaptive bicycle rides last summer with the local chapter of Disabled Sports USA — Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga — and she attended its annual watersports day at Possum Creek last July.

“I like to think I’m a vibrant 30,” she says with an easy laugh.

She had skydived twice before she lost her sight and made that activity a birthday present for her brother last fall.

“He’s afraid of heights, so I had to go with him,” Rodriguez said. “Skydiving is definitely a visual thing — it’s so cool to see as you’re doing it — but the coolest part is still flipping out of the plane and then feeling the wind, feeling the rush.”

Snowboarding had a different feeling, however.

“I first went when I was like 17, and I did it for several years,” she said, “but I was never good. I spent more time on my butt than the board. If I made it down 100 yards before I fell, I was doing good.

“It was cool to be around friends, but I was used to being sore after the first day and not wanting to go back out the next day — to do it all again.”

At DSUSA Learn to Ski 2012, however, Rodriguez couldn’t wait to get back on the board every day, thanks particularly to instructor Natalie Burns.

“Honestly, it was a lot more amazing than I thought it was going to be,” Rodriguez said. “I think I fell maybe six times in the whole four days. She made me feel so comfortable on the board.

“We did this thing called dancing, where I would hang on to her and she would hang on to me. She would mirror my image and respond to my moves and talk to me. At first we were just trying to get the feel of the mountain. After the second day I was feeling my toes on the turns, and finally our moves were more with fingertips.

“I can’t wait to go back. I am pumped.”

Debbie and Jerry Hightower from SPARC regularly help Knoxville’s Al Kaye and his staff from the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville at the Beech Mountain adaptive ski clinic. They urged Rodriguez to go along this year.

“After she lost her eyesight, she gave all her equipment to Goodwill,” Debbie Hightower said. “But we was coming to biking and we got to talking about her past snowboarding, and we thought she’d be great for this trip. So we invited her and she came.”

“And now I’m hooked,” Rodriguez said.

She also was so receptive and made such progress that she got the Tony DeLane Memorial Fund Scholarship covering her instruction at Breckenridge, again with Burns helping.

“She’s the first visually impaired person and the first boarder to get that scholarship,” Debbie Hightower said. “It’s a very big deal.”

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