UW grad Mark Bathum will compete in his third Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang beginning with the men's super-G race on Saturday. Bathum, who is legally blind, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and skies with the help of a guide.
Mark Bathum was 28 years old when his eye doctor tested his peripheral vision and told him he had a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa that would likely render him blind by age 40.
“There wasn’t a whole lot more I remember about what he said. Because once you get the first word, the rest is a bunch of noise rushing past your ears,” said Bathum, who, in his youth, was a national-caliber ski racer.
The notion that he might be blind by 40 terrified Bathum and has greatly influenced the trajectory of his life.
But even at the moment when he received that life-altering diagnosis, Bathum recalls one other thought that pierced through his shock.
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“I do remember in that meeting thinking that someday, I would do Paralympic ski racing,” Bathum said.
It took two decades, but that nugget of an idea forged from a devastating diagnosis ultimately came to fruition.
On Saturday in Pyeongchang, Bathum, a Seattle native and UW alum, will race in his third Paralympics for Team USA in the men’s Super-G event.
Bathum competes in the V-2, visually impaired classification, and he’ll ski behind his guide, Cade Yamamoto, from Quincy.
On the mountain, the pair is connected by Bluetooth headsets in their helmets through which Yamamoto issues verbal cues to guide Bathum through the course.
Yamamoto tries to stay about 20 to 30 feet ahead of Bathum. He wears a fluorescent-colored ski suit on the course to make it easy for Bathum to see him, and it’s his job to call out obstacles or tricky parts of the course to Bathum as he descends.
Yamamoto, 27, and Bathum have worked together as guide and athlete for about four years now, and this is their second Paralympics as a tandem.
“We got kind of lucky. Things clicked pretty rapidly and there wasn’t a huge learning curve as far as us getting in shape and stuff to sync up,” said Yamamoto, himself a former ski racer. “Our coaches were pretty good right off the bat helping me understand, ‘Here’s what (Bathum) needs.’”
Now 59, Bathum’s vision has – as his eye doctor predicted – severely deteriorated.
Bathum has about a five-to-six-degree radius of vision, or, as he explains it: “If you were to grab a standard toilet paper tube at home, close one eye and stick that over the other eye, I see a little bit less than what you’d see if you look through the tube.”
He also suffers from night blindness and navigates unfamiliar or crowded environments with the help of a cane.
But to Bathum’s relief, the worst fears that consumed him when he got his initial diagnosis have not come true.
“When doctors say you’ll be blind by 40, what does that mean? I thought he meant I’d be seeing black, that I wouldn’t be able to see anything, and not only would I need a cane, but I would have a dog to navigate,” Bathum said.
Instead, Bathum’s retinitis pigmentosa has progressed at a more moderate rate. He was legally blind by age 40 and has poor peripheral vision. But even though his vision is severely limited, Bathum can still see the world.
Rediscovering the love for ski racing that was first cultivated in his boyhood has helped him come to terms with his condition.
It’s hard to describe the sheer desperation that envelopes a man who’s been told he will soon be blind.
When Bathum was first diagnosed, he had just completed his MBA at UCLA, and was a successful young professional with an adventurous streak – he was a licensed pilot – who harbored dreams of career success and a happy family life.
Suddenly, uncertainty shrouded all these plans, and Bathum admits to going through some dark times.
“Your mind does all sorts of things you’re not able to control,” Bathum said. “You think, ‘Man, what’s my life gonna be like? This isn’t what I had mapped out. Am I gonna be able to have kids, get married and start a family? If I have kids, are they going to have this? … ‘What am I going to do career-wise?’
“A whole bunch of fears jump to the forefront of your mind and those persist for a long time. When those fears pop up, you have your period of anger and regret and you go through the stages of grief and it takes a long time before it gets to acceptance.”
Bathum’s diagnosis of impending blindness “had a very profound effect on my middle years from age 28 to 48,” he says.
It shaped the decisions he made – he ended some long-term relationships because he didn’t feel comfortable asking someone to have to cope with his condition – and informed his view on life.
Then, along came an even more powerful force: Bathum’s rediscovery of his first love – ski racing.
Bathum views skiing through the same lens espoused by the late, great snow sports filmmaker, Warren Miller: “Skiing is the ultimate freedom people can feel,” Bathum says.
Many of Bathum’s most cherished childhood memories were forged on the slopes of Alpental, where his family of ski enthusiasts spent numerous winter weekends, and by the time he finished middle school, Bathum was an accomplished junior racer.
He went on to complete high school at a ski academy in Wenatchee, but took a break from ski racing in the spring of 1978 before beginning his freshman year at UW.
Bathum skied recreationally on occasion in the years that followed, but it wasn’t until 2008, at age 49, that he returned to ski racing again.
He now regrets his long layoff from the sport.
“Had I known how much fun and rewarding the Paralympics is, I wouldn’t have waited till I was 49,” Bathum said. “It’s not about winning medals. Participating in the sport with all kinds of other young people who are facing their challenges with grace, dignity and courage, I find inspiring.
“Many of the things they have are more difficult than what I have. It puts my challenge in perspective, and it’s really positive environment for all of us.”
Bathum returned to ski racing shortly before the qualifying cycle for the Vancouver Paralympics. That nagging little goal that first popped into his head during his initial retinitis pigmentosa diagnosis served as his strongest motivation.
“When Vancouver came around, I was like, ‘I’m going to be 51. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it,’” Bathum said. “It was now or never.”
Bathum won a silver medal in downhill skiing at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010, and followed up with silver medals in the super-G and super-combined events at the Sochi Paralympics in 2014.
As with any sport, competing into your 50s makes you the grandpa of the field. Bathum is no pushover, though.
“He’s still right in there,” Yamamoto said. “I think a big part of it is because he grew up skiing and learned to ski able bodied. So even though, physically, he is not as strong as these younger guys, he has a huge technical advantage.
“He’s gunning for the younger guys. They all have a good respect for his ability. Nobody has written him off. He’s that crazy old man who goes faster than them.”
Competing against athletes half his age has kept Bathum young, he says. But just being able to race again has been liberating for his soul.
“Within our environment, having physical limitations is the norm. It’s one where, quite frankly, you don’t experience a lot of freedom,” Bathum says. “If I go skiing on a public run, even with my guide, you don’t get that sense of freedom. You ski nervously. You don’t get to ski carefree.”
Once again, Bathum channels his inner Warren Miller to try and explain what Paralympic ski racing has done for him: It’s gifted him with the ultimate freedom.
“In ski racing, we’re out there trying to ski as fast and recklessly as we can. It’s a great joy,” Bathum says. “On the hill, when we have our adaptive equipment, we go out and just ski absolutely as hard as we can, and it’s really not much different than what an able-bodied person would do.
“We get a tremendous sense of freedom and a joy from it because we’re getting such great mobility that we might not get in everyday life.”