Ben sets his sights on the 80

February 10, 2017

NO RIVER IN SIGHT, NO PROBLEM: Blind skier Ben Pettingill from Sydney after his first Southern 80 test run with the 99 Psycho Clowns ski race team earlier this week. PHOTO: 99PC Facebook page

MELBOURNE’S Ben Pettingill would surely approve of the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, when he once said that he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee — and opponents’ hands couldn’t hit what their eyes couldn’t see.

Pettingill will do more than float when he hits the Murray River for the 2017 Southern 80 disability class event.

He’ll zoom — behind the 99 Psycho Clowns.

With a boat that buzzes louder than a whole swarm of bees.

And Pettingill will ski what his eyes can’t see.

Blind for five years, since the age of 16 due to a genetic condition, Pettingill said skiing had long been a family hobby, but racing was another matter entirely.

‘‘I’ve always been a skier over Christmas with family,’’ he added.

‘‘Ski racing is something I’d always been interested in, but once I lost my eyesight I gave away that dream. It’s only been the right people around me and a good attitude that’s meant I’ve decided to give everything a go.’’

Pettingill said he loved watching the Southern 80 when he was a kid.

‘‘When I was younger and could see, I thought it was way too scary,’’ he added.

‘‘Now I can’t see, it doesn’t seem as scary. It’s just (a case of) why not? You’ve just got to take each day as it comes, make the most of it and don’t die wondering.’’

His association with the Psycho Clowns came about via connection with a family friend.

‘‘When I told them I’d be interested they made the call and they’ve been most welcoming and accommodating,’’ Pettingill said.

But what about the practical side of skiing blind?

What does Pettingill pick up on most — in-ear instructions, engine noise or the sensation of his feet on the water surface?

‘‘I have an adapted helmet so the observers (and team principal Dan McMahon) can talk to me,’’ he said.

‘‘They say left and right for corners, let me know about waves from other boats, when they speed up, if I’m moving too close to the bank or in the wrong direction, but it’s very hard to listen at 120 or 130 kilometres per hour. There’s a hell of a lot of engine noise. And I just feel the wave underneath the ski and can know when I’m safely in the centre of the wake.’’

Assuming all goes well in the 80, Pettingill said he’d be keen to continue skiing more regularly.

‘‘Maybe not every single race,’’ he added.

‘‘My profession is I’m an inspirational speaker for schools and companies. That’s my ultimate goal — to use this story to help inspire others. No matter what your situation, you can achieve anything.’’

The best aspect about living without sight would be the requirement to adopt a positive attitude, according to Pettingill.

‘‘I’ve had to say don’t let it stand in the way,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m still an ordinary human on the inside and without eyesight I have no preconceived judgments when I meet someone. They’re probably the two biggest advantages.’’

The toughest part about being blind was a lack of independence.

‘‘I love driving cars, helicopters, boats and so on — but the pro is you create better relationships with family and friends, because you have to trust them a lot more,’’ Pettingill said.

For Pettingill, it all comes under an encapsulating banner philosophy, summed up in one phrase: ‘‘True And Limitless Vision’’.

‘‘True Vision is about the fact that I lost my vision but now I feel I can see myself and others clearer, because I get to know them from the inside out,’’ he said.

‘‘I see people for who they truly are. And Limitless Vision because sometimes you can see the obstacles in life and you hesitate. Now that I can’t see, the possibilities are limitless. That pretty much sums up my attitude to life now — it’s true and limitless.

So not even a case of ‘‘the ski’s the limit’’ for him, then.

Pettingill lives in Sydney with his partner Amy and their dog Aussie.

Unseen but never unnoticed parts of his life.

‘‘Imagine waking up blind,’’ Pettingill said.

‘‘One moment you can see and in the next your vision is made up only of childhood memories.’’

So, starting with the Southern 80, he’s going to simply create some more.

—Ben Carter

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