Lary's Speakeasy

Len surrounded by kids asking why he talks funny

Ski More, Talk Less

I’m riding up the lift with several of my 5-to-9- year-old students. One boy asks the question I’ve been expecting: “Coach Len, why do you talk with a speaker?” Another chimes in: “Why does your voice sound funny?” I replied that I no longer have a voice box due to cancer. “Oh,” they said, accepting the explanation. After all, they were there to ski and have fun.

Just like me.

Diagnosis and Laryngectomy

In February 2020, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Cancer in the form of two tumors on my vocal cords. Prior to the diagnosis my voice had become progressively hoarse, and my students were having difficulty hearing me. Anyone who teaches knows how important voice projection is, especially in windy conditions.

In March 2020, I underwent a total Laryngectomy. As a result, I now breathe through a stoma (a hole in my neck). Fortunately, I did not need chemo or radiation therapy as the physicians did a phenomenal
job removing the cancer. I expressed to my doctors my greatest concern: would I be able to ski again? The answer was yes; therefore, this became my goal to ski.

In 2021 I decided not to teach, but I did ski. I had to learn how to handle cold air entering my stoma with my neck, mouth and nose covered with a mask. Fast forward to the fall of 2021: thanks to the support of Stratton’s management team, I was encouraged to teach again.

New Challenges

After a few weeks at the mountain, I made several observations.

  • There are challenges associated with teaching through
    an impairment I wasn’t aware of and that required new strategies.
  • Some of the strategies I’ve employed to
    overcome my impairment could actually apply to all instructors.
  • I realized how valuable it is
    for children to have an instructor who is different
    and who has had to overcome a physical impairment.

New Strategies

Len uses his portable speaker to talk to the kids
Len uses his portable speaker to talk to the kids

I needed to find a way to communicate effectively using minimal speech. The cold weather and wind made communication difficult for me. I found a portable speaker with a microphone I could use to
help project my voice.

In some ways, teaching was similar to what I did before. Now, however, I did a lot more demonstrating and less speaking. Hand signals and gestures are key, and concise demonstrations of skills are paramount. I found myself using hand gestures and signals with my ski poles which the group learned and became accustomed to.

Safety On The Slopes

Since I teach the same group of kids every weekend, they and their parents became accustomed to my
expressions and the sound of my garbled voice. My greatest concern (same as before my surgery) was keeping everyone safe on the mountain as I couldn’t speak loudly or yell.

len and his kids getting ready
Len and his kids getting ready

My supervisor at Stratton assigned an apprentice to assist me in managing the group and ensuring the kids knew what to do in case they got separated from the group – which sometimes had over ten students. I relied on this assistant to demo skills and to communicate. When appropriate, I’d work one-on-one with a student on a specific skill.

Learning To Be Heard

I can speak, but my voice sounds quite different from a “normal” voice. It’s guttural and soft. I can’t raise my volume so, in a quiet environment, it’s easy to hear and understand especially if you can see my lips move.

Outside with my face covered, it’s a challenge. Cold and dry air also impedes my speaking. Therefore, I move the group to the edge of trails where we are buffeted by trees; I face the group and speak directly using my microphone and speaker.

Likewise, the background noise in a lodge makes me impossible to hear. So I get close to the kids and speak so they can see my lips move.

Advancing

Building basic skills and confidence were my early season goals. As the season progressed, we took our
skills to more difficult and steeper terrain. I used hand signals when I wanted the group to stop and often had students lead the group to a desired destination. We maximized ski time and minimized talking – an
effective means of teaching and having fun!

Would this style translate when teaching adults? I wanted to find out, so I taught some private lessons
and began working with a senior group, who meet twice a week for two hours. Intermediate skiers, many
of them started later in life and didn’t own some of the basic skills.

Ski More, Talk Less

Instead of talking a lot, I demonstrated skills I wanted them to experience. Skiing backwards was a huge step for these adults. I could see anxiety in their eyes when I demonstrated but we used beginner terrain and once a few of them got the hang of it, the rest followed.

The excitement of learning something they saw their grandkids doing was evident. They had fun and looked forward to mastering that skill and moving onto to 180s and 360s. I can’t wait to get them into the terrain park next season.

More time on the hill skiing leads to an improvement in skills. We call this “getting mileage”. Mileage along with basic education and skills training leads to growth and development. I feel my lessons prior to surgery were effective as I like to keep moving. However, my new approach encourages even more skiing and less talking resulting in faster growth and more fun.

Both young and the old students have been patient and accepting. The kids seemed to forget about any differences after a week or two; they’re just into skiing and having fun.

A Valuable Experience

len and the kids on the ski slope
Len and the kids on the slope

I think it is valuable for the kids to experience an individual with an impairment. They realize that although I don’t sound like them, I am not different from others. For many, it was their first time experiencing an impaired individual. I believe the experience will lead to greater acceptance, empathy, and understanding of people who appear to be different than themselves. Meanwhile, parents and my colleagues set a great example: they accepted my impairment unconditionally.

So yes, you can talk less and ski more. You can even teach without a voice box. For me, less talk translates to more fun and more effective lessons.

Yes, there are limitations. The technology and the addition of the assistant were huge, but I can easily manage a class of five or fewer by myself – especially when students grow accustomed to my teaching style and where to go.

In Conclusion

When I returned from my cancer surgery, I found myself in a unique situation – my main means of communication was diminished. I discovered that it was possible to teach despite this. Now I ski more and talk less.

len and his wife

Len Black is a Alpine Level I, Children’s Specialist 1 at Stratton Mountain, VT
He would like to know if there are other skiers with a total laryngectomy out there. Contact him at lenblack@yahoo.com.

As always if you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the box below.

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William Hardy
William Hardy
18 days ago

That is so great. I just use energy hme for skiing

Len Black
Len Black
17 days ago
Reply to  William Hardy

Thanks Bill! Glad to hear you’re still out on the slopes.

Daniella
Daniella
17 days ago

Wonderful to hear your story and the new ways you learned to do what you love again!

Len Black
Len Black
17 days ago
Reply to  Daniella

Thank you Daniella! Time to get back on the mountain. You know it’s like riding a bike. . . once you’ve done it you’ll never forget!

Valeria
Valeria
16 days ago

Love the story Len. Thanks for sharing. Margaret

Sue DiDonato
Sue DiDonato
14 days ago

What a challenging and amazing story with such a wonderful outcome! It sounds like you have taught much more than skiing to your students of all ages. That’s a superhero in my book. Now get out there and keep doing what you love!

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