This article is from Edition 11: The Real Risk Takers
Mac Marcoux
Written by Mac Marcoux
Tristan Rodgers
Written by Tristan Rodgers
Published on 16th September 2021
11 min read

Visually impaired skier Mac Marcoux is a multi Winter Paralympics and World Championships gold medalist. Along with his guide Tristan Rodgers, he is now starting to redefine what is possible in visually impaired freeskiing. Our Editor Sam chatted with them on the cusp of a huge season. 

Adventure Uncovered: What does you guys’ skiing schedule look like through the year?

Mac: It's pretty much a year-round commitment. From the spring we’re in Whistler spending every day of the week in the gym, usually in the mornings. Last week we moved home to Ontario, and now we're heading to Italy tomorrow to get back on snow. From November it gets pretty jam packed right until the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing next February. In November we're training in British Columbia for most of the month, then a quick dip home to do some laundry. We’ve got some World Cup scheduled before Christmas,  then home for Christmas and then back on the road again for all of January and into February until March 15th, when we'll be on our way home from Beijing.

Adventure Uncovered: Do you enjoy being on the road so much?

Mac: Covid came as kind of a blessing in disguise. I was able to take a step back from skiing a little bit and spend a lot more time focusing on myself and my health, just resetting the mind a little bit. Now it's been a year and a half and I'm itching and ready to get back after it!

Tristan: It’s important to have those outlets and find something we can focus on outside of just ski racing, so we're pretty good about making time for ourselves. This year we've got the two big events - the World Championships and the Games - which is I think the first year in history they're both in the same winter. 

Adventure Uncovered: Your recent film, Blind Faith, gives insight into how you ski together. Has your system evolved over the years?

Mac: It’s constantly evolving season by season - little things as my vision deteriorates and I need more information in certain areas. We're constantly working and polishing a stone that never really gets polished: figuring out what can be better, what works, what doesn't. I think that just goes with progression. It's not as much the communication - the cues stay similar - but the information that I need.

Adventure Uncovered: How is your vision changing, Mac? And do you think it would be feasible to keep skiing without any vision?

Mac: Everything feels a little different every year. But yeah, I still have a fair amount of peripheral vision - I think 6% as of right now. It stays pretty stable, but slowly small things have changed. Now I'm starting to lose a little bit more detail, and depth perception is getting a little funky. This also has to do with the amount of time we've actually spent training the last little while - you know, being injured and stuff. But it's very slow, which is nice. I'm pretty fortunate for that.

There is a whole category in para-alpine skiing for completely blind athletes. Instead of just running radios like Tristan and I, the guide also has a loudspeaker on their back. We’ve got one completely blind athlete on the team. Not only is he listening to what his guide is saying; he's actually using her for location purposes - listening to where the sound is coming from and travelling towards it. It's really cool to watch. It's got to be so freakin’ scary, I can't even imagine! I don't know if I have the stones to ski if I was in that state. 

Adventure Uncovered: Beyond the verbal communication, is there anything else you train that may not be so obvious to people?

Mac: Watching Tristan’s body language and how he is reacting to the snow. If I'm close enough, I can see how his feet are articulating with the snow and I can watch when he starts to roll the ski over. So a lot of it for me is not so much looking at the course, but watching exactly what he's doing and trying to stick in his line, or just inside his line.

Tristan: As communication goes, I think it’s less than 10% verbal. The rest is all about your body language and positioning. Mac can't see two or three gates ahead, so he's not sure if there’s a rut or something coming up. So while it's super important to be really good verbally and have those good keywords, body language is everything. You're not going to follow someone who's shaky and timid and have the same confidence you would if someone is really charging and attacking the course. So that's the most important piece for communication: being sure of yourself and your movement.

Mac: That's a really good point. It works like that everywhere, with a leader in any aspect of life. If they're not confident, it's hard to rely on them and put 100% of your trust in them.

Tristan: We mountain bike a lot, and following someone on trail who’s never ridden before is night and day versus a confident mountain biker doing all the right things. 

Mac: No matter whether you can see or not, if you're riding close to someone riding something gnarly, and they're riding really strong and doing all the right things, it's super easy just to stay on their wheel and do the same thing. But if they're shaky and squiggly you're not going to stay on their wheel and trust their decision making.

'As communication goes, I think it’s less than 10% verbal. The rest is all about your body language and positioning.'

Adventure Uncovered: Is there anything else you train as a guide, Tristan, that may not be so obvious?

Tristan: One thing I’d never thought of before starting this role is the effect of the snow coming off of your skis. When we try to slow ourselves down we pivot the skis really fast, and it kicks up a puff of snow. I need strategies for slowing myself down without interfering with Mac’s vision. As you make that cloud, it's basically skiing through fog or really heavy snow. And it's cold!

Adventure Uncovered: How do you do that?

Tristan: When you're racing you try and take the fastest line possible through the gate, meaning you're really close to it. We're talking centimetres. What I'll do is make my line a little wider. It'll take me more time to execute the turn. Then Mac usually skis a little bit inside of my line, so I put him in a good place to ride.

Adventure Uncovered: In terms of regulating your speed relative to Mac, do you ever have Mac behind you shouting: “Yo, go faster!”?

Tristan: Oh, hell yeah! That's not not at all uncommon. It's cat and mouse the whole way. That's where the verbal communication comes in, and just constantly shoulder checking. 

Adventure Uncovered: The climactic scene of Blind Faith is you guys skiing The Coffin: one of Whistler’s most notorious lines. The first take didn’t exactly go to plan ...

Tristan (laughing): Well, I don’t wanna blame the Groms, but they have really short skis! So when they sidestep into The Coffin it makes this huge banana. When I pivoted to go fall line and ski down, my ski tip got caught. Then one ski went and this one fell off …  I actually skied out on one ski fine. It was when I tried to stop that I really started tumbling. 

Mac: It was freakin’ rowdy! Because for me, Tristan disappeared. I watched his ski flip behind him a couple of times and land down below the mandatory air in the middle. And then he just disappeared out of my eye line. And I was like, “Oh, is he okay?” But I could hear in the mic just a quick grunting. It didn’t sound like he was okay. For a second he's laying there, then he's like, “Holy shit, that sucked!”

We skied it together for the film, but with freeskiing it's almost sketchier to have both of us in the same spot - the amount of sluff I'm pushing down on him and stuff. So it's better to watch someone ski the whole thing, then you do the same - which is why freeskiing is so interesting. It intrigued me because it's a totally different dynamic to a speed course.

Adventure Uncovered: The Coffin is an intimidating line, but how does it compare to other lines you’ve skied together? 

Mac: The Coffin is very much point and shoot. There is something very nerve-wracking about launching yourself into the abyss and hoping and praying that you don't come out tomahawking. It’s a blast, but high risk to low reward. Something a little bit steeper, and with a little more picking your way through rocks, trending left or right, is a lot more fun.

When we were doing the film, it was like: we've spent a fair amount of time freeskiing, but have never really just gone after it for a week. I've always been fascinated with freeskiing, and kind of see myself transitioning from ski racing into spending a lot more time in the backcountry, because it's such a different world.

Adventure Uncovered: Are there others pushing vision-impaired freeskiing or snowboarding in similar ways?

Mac: Not really. I’ve seen a video of Jacob Smith, a young guy who is the first blind skier to ski the Big Couloir in Big Sky, Montana. It was pretty exciting. But other than that I haven't really seen anything. As I got older, I always thought more would come out, but I haven't seen that. There is adaptive ski cross, but a lot of it is for sitting athletes or amputees. The visually impaired side of things is pretty untapped.

Mac: That's what fascinates me so much about all these sports that I grew up watching and falling in love with, between motocross and mountain biking and all the sports that most blind people are told they're not supposed to do: no one has been doing it, so there is no one showcasing that you can, or just throwing themselves in the deep end and hoping and trying to learn as they go. There is no one you can look at and say: “Hey, how are you doing it? And how does it work?”

So skiing for me is a lot more, I guess, pioneering in a sense. It's for me as much as anyone else, but at the same time, if I can go and push myself in different avenues of sport that, you know, not many or no blind people have been doing in the past, it's a great learning opportunity for me and hopefully I can get to some other visually impaired athletes or people that are trying to get involved in sport but didn't want to go down the standard Paralympic road. 

I think there are many athletes who are kind of deterred away from parasport. It’s such an amazing movement - it's been so fun, and it's been such a big part of my life - but there are only so many sports available. They just don't get that same fulfilment, and maybe don't know that they can go out and jump into the backcountry or jump on a dirt bike.

Tristan: It's great to see Mac’s story and watch him ski and learn about his progression and his exploration of freeskiing. But what I really got out of Blind Faith is that when somebody has a visual impairment or any disability, and it's new and they're exploring that, it's like, “Okay, you're visually impaired now - here are all the sports that you can do.” Let's shift that mentality and say, “What are the sports you want to do? What do you want to pursue?” 

Mac: I agree. When I was a kid, we looked into sports that were available for visually impaired athletes. That was really great for me at the time: it immersed me in this whole world of para-alpine skiing and the Paralympic movement, getting to travel the world and ski and learn that the world is so much bigger than what's going on at home. But at the same point, I was still so fascinated with all these sports that I wasn't really supposed to be doing. How cool would it be if, back at eight years old, instead of sitting me down and saying what sports were available, the starting point was: “Okay, what do you want to do? Just keep on doing that, but adapt how you do it a little bit.”

'How cool would it be if, back at eight years old, instead of sitting me down and saying what sports were available, the starting point was: “Okay, what do you want to do? Just keep on doing that, but adapt how you do it a little bit.”'

Adventure Uncovered: Have you seen a major change in how general society - resorts, sponsors, other skiers, media etc. - views vision-impaired skiing or skiers with disabilities more generally? 

Mac: Totally. When I was twelve or thirteen, starting to race at the World Cup, no one knew what parasport was. A lot of people were like, “Oh yeah, he's trying to get to the Special Olympics.” Now people know what you're talking about, and they're paying attention. It’s allowed a lot more people to get involved and want to do it on a recreational basis. I think the media has done such a good job. There’s a long way to go still, but it's cool seeing the progression over the years. 

It’s really hard sometimes to convince another couple of blind guys: “Hey man, you want to go skiing?” And they're like: “Okay … no.” I've had so much more interaction with people with visual impairments since Blind Faith came out - even more so than during my whole ski racing career. It's been so cool for me, because I was doing the same thing when I was younger, reaching out to other blind guys.

Adventure Uncovered: It’s amazing to see you helping open up those new possibilities, and how the fact that freeskiing (like other ‘extreme sports’) is cool is helping.

Mac: Exactly. The Paralympic movement is so amazing. But often what is talked about is being ‘inspiring’ - more showing an inspirational story instead of showing it for how raw and gnarly some sports can really be. Shifting coverage is changing perspectives on things and making things look bad ass instead of just trying to get that inspirational piece. It’s so cool to watch. I think of Josh Dueck’s Salomon TV segment a few years ago. Stuff like that really makes people think: “Okay, that's pretty sick.” You know?

Adventure Uncovered: Looking forward then, across the next five years or so, do either of you have any particular goals in terms of your skiing or the wider place of vision-impaired skiing and paraskiing? 

Mac: Just to continue to go out and showcase some sports for how bad ass they really are: spending a lot of time mountain  biking, snowmobiling, skiing - they're just such gnarly sports. And changing the delivery from, ‘It's a blind guy going out mountain biking’ to, ‘We’re out here mountain biking, but also this is happening in the background.’

I'm always such a big fan of seeing progression. Seeing it in the world around me is so cool. I have so much respect for so many people out there pushing further. I'm trying to roll along the same lines. Hopefully within the next couple years I can find a way to showcase myself and other athletes doing really gnarly things. Chase people around, try new things every year and see and inspire progression in sport outside of the Paralympic movement.

Tristan: Like Mac said, we're always kind of obsessed with that progression piece. It's like Jenga, always trying to one up yourself and everybody else. I'm sure Mac, just like myself, is in The Coffin thinking: “Hmm, I wonder what we can do next ...”

But I think it's important to kind of stay focused on ourselves and what we do, and that's ski racing. We've got a really, really big season coming up. It’s so important to dream and be ambitious about the next five years, but for now we’re focused on just trying to be the best that we can be for March, and then close this chapter and see what's next. The most important piece of the winter is focusing on that and trying to bring home some medals.