Special friendship inspiration for MU ski club

Sunday, March 30, 2008 | 9:29 p.m. CDT; updated 3:24 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
MU senior Mike Neustedter, right, returns to California during breaks to snowboard with childhood friend Paige Volden, left, who has lost her eyesight.

COLUMBIA — The story of Mizzou Freeride, a ski and snowboard club for MU students, started 16 years ago when MU senior Mike Neustedter was in kindergarten in San Jose, Calf.

Neustedter says that a random conversation his mother had with the mother of another student in his class named Paige Volden led to a meaningful friendship.

“I don’t remember exactly, but I think our moms were talking about getting golden retrievers,” Neustedter said. “Our moms became friends, and that is how we met.”

Volden said the meeting came up often as children.

“We used to always joke around saying that we were related by our dogs.”

Neustedter and Volden did not have any relatives living in California and soon their families developed a close friendship.

“After we met, our families had Thanksgiving together every year,” Neustedter said.

In high school, Volden and Neustedter developed a love for snowboarding, a sport that helped them stay involved in each other’s lives when they went to college. Neustedter went to California-San Diego and Volden enrolled at California-Davis. The two met often on breaks and long weekends to go snowboarding in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Even though he considered himself a recreational snowboarder, Neustedter said he was getting caught up in a culture that can be all-consuming.

“Snowboarding is really its own lifestyle,” Neustedter said, “I knew that I needed to get away from it to focus on my education and get a degree.”

In the summer of 2005, Neustedter transferred to MU to major in strategic communications. He thought he had left the winter sports world behind.

In October of 2005, it began to look as if Volden would be getting off the snow too, when she starting losing her eyesight. In just two weeks, Volden went from having perfect vision to being legally blind. That December, she was diagnosed with a rare form of Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy or Leber’s disease. Volden’s vision deteriorated for eight months before stabilizing. Volden was left with a visual acuity of 20/800, meaning that what most people can see 800 feet away, Volden can only see at 20 feet.

Still, though her vision was a blur at best, Volden knew that she wanted to keep snowboarding. Neustedter knew that he wanted to help her.

During Thanksgiving and winter break of 2005, Neustedter and Volden hit the slopes of Lake Tahoe again. It wasn’t the same as before.

“Well, at first we didn’t know exactly what we were doing.” Neustedter said.

Neustedter would snowboard in front of Volden, having her follow his line with vocal cues. Just following Neustedter down a smooth line wasn’t enough for Volden. She and Neustedter started to become more confident and soon they were pushing the limits of what a blind snowboarder can do.

“In the early days, I even tried to have him guide me off of jumps,” Volden said.

“Usually, if I saw a jump off to the side of a run, I would tell Paige to just go just a little farther, then stop and wait for me while I hit the jump,” Neustedter said. “She got bored with that.”

The two worked out a system, and soon Volden was bringing a new meaning to the term blind jump. Neustedter would go over a jump first while Volden waited just up the hill. Then, he would go back to Volden and have her follow him towards the jump. As Volden approached the crest of the take-off, Neustedter would shout “Now!” to let her know that she was about to leave the ground. Needless to say, the two drew quite a bit of attention in their bright-orange Blind Skier and Guide vests.

“We had a lot of people stop and ask us questions,” Neustedter said. “People couldn’t believe that someone blind was jumping a snowboard.”

Neustedter and Volden were able to enjoy skiing together again, but they soon realized they would be better off with some formal training. So, over Thanksgiving break of 2006, Neustedter and Volden went to blind skiing classes. Neustedter became a certified ski guide and Volden switched from a snowboard to skis, which are easier to stop or slow on command.

Neustedter didn’t have much time to use his new certification, though, he was due back at school in Missouri. But he had developed a new attitude. Instead of trying to get away from snowboarding, Neustedter made it a goal to bring snowboarding and skiing to MU.

“I used to think snowboarding was just a distraction,” Neustedter said. “But now I know how much of a positive it can be in someone’s life. I figured if someone who was blind can enjoy skiing, why can’t there be a snowboard club at Mizzou?”

During the 2007 school year, Neustedter began the process of creating a ski and snowboard club at MU and in November of 2007, MizzouRec Services approved a club officially called Mizzou Freeride. Although the club has only 12 members, Neustedter said he expects it will have at least 20 by next winter and that he intends for the club to help others and be competitive as well.

Neustedter has been talking with the Gateway Disabled Ski Program, which trains blind skiing guides and works with blind skiers at the Hidden Valley ski resort in St. Louis. Neustedter said the program desperately needs volunteers, and he is hoping Mizzou Freeride will be able to provide assistance for the program.

Neustedter said he wants the club to make a difference for years to come, but after he graduates in December, he is thinking about going back to snowboarding much more often with Volden.

Volden has talked with the U.S. Paralympic team, but said she is not sure if she will train full time for the 2010 games in Vancouver, British Columbia. If she does, Neustedter said that he would like to be her official guide for the games, and he might move to Colorado after he graduates so that he can train with her.

Nothing is definite yet, only that the U.S. Paralympic team probably won’t be crazy about having Neustedter try to guide Volden off of jumps.

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