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    Saturday, January 3, 1998

    American skier has sights on Nagano Paralympics

     LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) -- It's pretty easy to spot Nancy Stevens whenever she steps onto her cross-country skis and goes racing: She's the diminutive one with the mile-wide smile and wacko sunglasses.
     It's impossible for her to spot you, though, because she's blind. She hasn't been able to see anything since birth, except maybe that a handicap is no reason not to have fun in life.
     Stevens, who was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., and lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountain town of Frisco, won all three races she entered this week during the ski trials for the U.S. Olympic team. That puts her and her trusty guide, Tony Neaves, on track to make the U.S. team that will compete in the Paralympics at Nagano, Japan, after the Winter Games.
     "I like the challenge. It's fun," said the 37-year-old Stevens, who learned to cross-country race at 12 and took up Alpine skiing two years later.
     "So often as a blind child, people would just say, 'Oh, it's so great that you're out here,"' said the 5-foot, 100-pound Stevens, who runs a program that teaches people with disabilities how to live independently. "And they wouldn't show you the correct technique. I snowplowed probably for the first three or four years that I downhill skied."
     Stevens does not ski alone. Disabled skiers from all over the world regularly compete in several classes -- for the blind, paraplegics, and those who have lost limbs.
     The idea of offering skiing to the physically disabled began in Europe after World War II. Austria, Germany and Switzerland began running ski programs for amputees as part of their rehabilitation, and the programs gained a foothold in the U.S. in the late 1960s.
     And these are not just people who lace on skis once the snow begins to fly. This is serious business. Stevens said she works out as much as 12 hours a week, which means no more guitar, dulcimer or keyboard playing and no more acting in community theater.
     The devotion to the sport does not go unnoticed.
     With a prosthesis strapped to his right leg, 43-year-old Mike Crenshaw, who lost his right foot and part of his right leg below the knee in a tractor accident 25 years ago, finished a 15-kilometer classic race in zero-degree weather on New Year's Day in 36 minutes, 52 seconds.
     That was less than seven minutes behind the winner, Marcus Nash, a member of the U.S. Olympic team, and it came just two days after Crenshaw had skied a 30K event with more than a foot of new snow slowing things down. Willie Stewart, 36, a star wrestler in Virginia before losing his left arm in a roofing accident, wasn't far behind.
     "To imagine going around that course in those conditions with one arm is just incomprehensible," said two-time Olympian Luke Bodensteiner, team leader for the U.S. cross-country team. "Those guys are so tough. When you're out there, you need all your senses. You need everything working for you. To have something missing like that -- any ability -- I can't imagine that they can perform as well as they do."
     But they do, and it is important.
     "Some people say that I'm too much of an overachiever and too goal-oriented," Stevens said. "But I try to instill that in all my clients. 'What do you want to accomplish?' And they're like, 'Look at all those medals on your wall.'
     "As much as I don't like to say things like that, that I'm a role model or an inspiration, in some ways, I guess I am."