Blind skier has operation and can now ski and see with his own eyes after a lifetime without

Being blind never slowed down Mike May.

Injured by a chemical explosion at age 3, May took up downhill skiing at Kirkwood in 1979. That year he helped start the area's blind skier program, which has helped him become a graceful and daring skier who can navigate Kirkwood's expert slopes, literally, with his eyes closed.

This year, he set the speed skiing record for blind athletes - a title he'll never be able to claim again.

One day in March, and for the first time in 43 years, May was able to see.

Stem-cell injections and a cornea transplant, a procedure that has only been successful a handful of times, restored sight to May's right eye.

"They told me not to be too hopeful, and that it probably wouldn't work, but when they took the bandages off the day after the operation, there was a flood of shapes and colors," he said. "The first thing that came into focus was my wife's face. I could see her beautiful smile and the way her hair framed her face."

Then he saw his two boys, Carson, 8, and 6-year-old Wyndham.

"I've always been told about their beautiful blue eyes," he said. "Now, I can see that for myself."

Since then, he's been seeing things he's only been able to feel, or hear. Everything is candy to his eyes.

With 20/400 vision, large images lurk at a distance and details are visible within 5 feet. But any vision is a bonus for May, who said he never expected to see during his lifetime.

"You can see way more detail than you can feel," he said. "You think of someone's face as eyes, nose, mouth and chin, but you see just how different all those things can be."

Colors, which he could distinguish through a limited amount of light perception when he was blind, surprised him with a variety of hues he didn't know existed. A marching band moved May to tears when he "saw" music for the first time. The sunrise from his summer home on Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe's South Shore, made him gasp.

With his newfound sense, May wanted to see the slopes that he's been skiing for more than 20 years. It's also where he met Jennifer, his wife of 11 years.

"It's a weird feeling when something is familiar to you, and you think you know it," May said, during a lunch break at Kirkwood's Red Cliffs lodge. "To turn on the visual channel and actually see it is the same experience only in a different dimension."

Verbal descriptions of Kirkwood's volcanic precipices and winding ski runs were mental beacons for May, who could point out the landmarks even when he was blind.

Though he had the mountain mapped in memory, its scale was larger than life. Trees were taller and a darker green than he pictured in his mind's eye. His favorite slopes - Kirkwood's perilous Elevator Shaft and Sentinel Bowl - were steeper than he thought. The snow looked more textured than it felt under his feet.

But seeing isn't always believing.

For May, who is president and chief executive officer of his own innovative software company, it's a learning experience. Sometimes he has to close his eyes and touch the object before he's able to recognize it.

"Your brain has already figured out what these things are, and my brain is starting from scratch," he said. "If I see a dark spot on the slope, I can't tell right away if it's a person, a shadow, a lift tower or a tree."

He skied slower on his first day with sight than he did when he was blind. Every view offered a dangerous distraction, and he found himself closing his eyes for security, except on the occasion when a "snow bunny" crossed his path. Moguls, that he would fly through when he couldn't see, told his brain to slow down the pace.

Objects in motion, like skiers and snowboarders, zipped by him quicker than his brain could process their identity.

Snowboarding's shoveling sound sparked a curiosity in May long before he could see.

"Because I've never tried it before, I was really intrigued by snowboarding and watching how (snowboarders) move," he said.


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