Champion Skier on the Harvard Course

IT'S MIDMORNING on a chilly weekday in late May, and Cara A. Dunne is strolling around her native Dunster House courtyard, doing something that's become old hat for her: smiling for the camera.

She's hardly obsessed with how she'll come across in the photo. Unlike most subjects, she doesn't run her fingers nervously through her hair, and she doesn't ask how she looks.

But she displays a certain savviness for her photo opportunity, perhaps rivaled on campus only by Harvard's Undergraduate Council-trained budding politicos.

Gearing up for the portrait, she crouches down and wraps her arm around her dog. Them she quickly changes her mind, dismissing the pose as being too "cute."

The photographer suggests taking a picture of her with the river in the background. "That shot's been done before by another magazine," Dunne casually mentions, before pleasantly assenting to the scene.


If she seems like a seasoned pro at this, it's because, well, she is. Hardly a newcomer to media attention, the list of organizations which have honored Dunne's achievements would seem more suited to a quarterback for a Big Ten football factory than an East Asian Studies concentrator at Harvard.

Local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations have hounded her since her childhood. ESPN did a short documentary on her for a national cable audience. She was presented with a check at the 50-yard line during a New England Patriots game.

Why all the attention?

Think of what got Harvard and the rest of the nation so excited when Paul Wylie '91 excelled at February's Winter Olympic Games: a silver medal. Now magnify that by three--three silver medals, that is. And two bronzes, by the way.

A world class skier for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team since 1982, Dunne, who is blind, has amassed a remarkable list of accomplishments in her eight years of competition. When, at age 11, most current Harvard seniors were just coming into their own in Little League, Dunne won three silver medals in the 1982 world championship for disabled skiers.

Two years later in Austria, she took home a silver and two bronzes in her first Olympics. After a brief injury, she came back better than ever in 1988, taking away two silvers (the gold seemed within reach when she was ahead for one run, but the dream faded after she took a fall on the course).

Due to cancer, Dunne lost her vision at age five. Neither she nor those who know her like to focus on her visual impairment, but it is hard to avoid thinking about when contemplating the list of silvers and bronzes she's amassed--or the numerous other achievements she's had in the course of her life.

As she tells it, Dunne's decorated athletic career emerged from the confluence of two factors in her life: her visual impairment and her stepfather. Even at a young age, Dunne, a Chicago native, was restless for activity, and was a self-described tomboy. "My mother made sure that when I lost my sight I didn't stop that," she tells.

The commitment to maintain serious physical activity, of course, necessitated one important choice, namely what exactly that activity would be.

Sporting expertise in her family resided with her stepfather, Richard Zabelski, who had learned to ski while in the military during the Vietnam War. Zabelski encouraged his young the stepdaughter to take part in the sport, both as a way for her to channel her energy and as a way for him to overcome the barriers that tend to separate stepparents and stepchildren.

"She wanted to gain the respect of her peers by being able to do something good," Zabelski says. "I wanted to develop a relationship that was unique to me and Cara."

While the two developed their won unique relationship, they were also busy developing a unique style of skiing. Previously, visually impaired skiers had been guided down the slopes by a coach who would stand behind and shout out precise maneuvering instructions.

Zebelski quickly gained a distaste for this method, and he and Dunne pioneered a controversial style by which he would ski in front of her, so she could hear and feel his turns, rather than simply try to follow a set of spoken instructions.

Dunne admits that her initial attempt at racing at age nine, was not exactly silver medal quality. "I heard the timekeeper cheer, and I crashed into him," she recalls of her debut in Wisconsin.

Her technique kept improving, however, and with the help of a change in attitude among those running her sport, she got the break that she calls a turning point in her life. In 1982, organizers of the disabled ski championships in Colorado decided to allow visually impaired skiers to take part in the competition for the first time.

But the 11-year-old Dunne did not exactly jump at the chance. After winning a major domestic event, she knew she was in the running to represent the U.S. in the world championship. But more than anything else, she was nervous.

"They picked me and I cried," she says. "Everyone thought I was crying because I was really happy, but I was crying because I was scared."

After her success in the 1982 championship, local newspapers and television stations became in- terested in her story, tracking her down atschool to hear it. The result, Dunne recalls,could not have been better for her.

"Suddenly, all the kids who didn't know how toregard me were, you know.." she says, her voicetrailing off. "Things just changed, and it was themost wonderful thing."

Besides enjoying an unparalleled record ofsuccess in her sport-she was the only visuallyimpaired skier to win a medal at the disabledskiing Olympic in 1988--Dunne also foundcompanionship off the slopes. Dunne has enjoyed,she says, a great deal of camaraderie with some ofthe other skiers, something that has at leastpartly made up for the lack of a "normal"childhood due to her intense training.

Case in point: when Dunne was feeling down forspending her birthday on a Colorado slope duringthe 1982 world championships, her teammates cameto the rescue. After the competition, athletesfrom many different sports attended a surprisebirthday party, lavishing her with present.

"That's not to say that Dunne has been treatedas an equal in every respect. After all, thepre-teenager was hobnobbing with a group whoseyoungest member was more than twenty-years-old.

"I had a teammate who said, 'Cara, if I win,you'll buy me a beer. If you win, I'll buy you aglass of milk," Dunne says, explaining, "Theystill treat me like I'm a little kid."

Another fortunate activity has stemmed fromDunne's skiing expertise--she has been able tohelp others with visual impairments to at leasttry to achieve the success she has enjoyed.

Last year, Dunne assembled a team of noted skiinstructors--including a former Olympic goldmedalist--in Utah to learn how to teach thevisually impaired to ski. Blindfolding theinstructors, Dunne had them led down the slope byan instructor who could see, to give them anappreciation for what it is like for the visuallyimpaired to ski.

The instructors "did pretty well," but just asimportantly, Dunne says, the session represented"a good way to teach normal people who rely a loton their visual senses."

Dunne makes no attempt to hide the specialefforts necessary for those who are visuallyimpaired to tackle a sport in which theparticipants approach interstate highway speeds.But she quickly brushes off any concerns that itposes any special dangers for those like herselfwho partake.

"There's always a risk--there's risks foreverybody," she says. "Someone once said, 'gatesdon't hurt any less when you hit them and can seethem."

AT HARVARD, Dunne decided not a continueracing competitively, feeling she could not beworld-class racer given such a demanding academicschedule. She also says she wanted to have theexperience of "growing up" that she could not haveby having a peer group years ahead of her.

To fill the void that was left by her departurefrom competitive skiing, she has since pursued aninterest developed, ironically, from her years inthe sport.

Dunne's years of travelling overseas to majorcompetitions brought her into contact with anumber of different cultures, inspiring aninterest in foreign languages. She mainly pursuedSpanish in high school, largely because student inher neighborhood grew up speaking that language.

She also dabbled in Japanese in high school,taking a class on the weekends in a nearbyBuddhist temple. That reflected her won interestin Japanese culture after being thoroughlyimpressed with Japanese skiers she had met, aswell as her stepfather's suggestion that it was an"upand-coming language."

In her sophomore year at Harvard, Dunne'sinterest in East Asian Studies really took off.Originally destined for a concentration ineconomics, Dunne changed her plans after realizingthat the only course she enjoyed was her Japaneselanguage class.

Her academic interest culminated this year withher senior honors thesis, entitled "Access toFreedom," a 151-page tome on disability issues inJapan, focusing on the country's laws, attitudesand the educational system.

Dunne concluded that the Japanese perceptionsof rights for disabled persons areinadequate--they consider them, she says,"privileges" rather than "rights." For example,she says, sight dogs are not always allowed intoJapanese restuarants, something she considers agreat in justice.

"Do you not let someone in because they're awoman or Black?" she ask.

"It's ridiculous," she adds before correctingherself and looking a little remorseful. "Ilearned not to say things like that--it's acultural judgment."

Those who know Dunne points to her thesis,which she says she hopes to publish in a book, asa prime example of the determination and energythat has been the driving force throughout all heraccomplishments.

"She would just go and sit down and write 20pages," says Quincey Simmons '92, a friend ofDunne's. "At the end of that, she'll want to gofor a run or a bike ride."

Dunne's extracurricular pursuits have alsostemmed from and reflect her interest in Japanesesociety. Last year she co-founded and served aseditor-in-chief of a campus magazine calledInside Japan, which has focused largely onrelations between the United States and Japan.

Dunne has also spent her summers grappling withissues relating to Japan. She spent one summer asan intern with a company in Japan. Reflecting herinterest in U.S.-Japanese relations, she spentanother working for the Japanese consulate inChicago.

And while she in not exactly sure just how muchof a role Japan will play in her career plans,international issues seem to be in the cards, shesays. Among other options, Dunne says she mighteventually go to law school and specialize ininternational law, inspired by her interest in howconceptions of rights vary among differentcountries.

Dunne has not yet settled on a plan for nextyear, although she says she might work for aprofessor at Baylor University's medical schoolwho does research on disability issues.

She reserves particular enthusiasm for the ideaof writing a book at some point, a goal she sayhas been inspired by her recent writing of skitsfor the Senior Talent Show, a role she'sundertaken as the Redcliffe first marshal of theClass of 1992. She says she will not rule outpursuing another aspect of her elected marshaloffice: politics.

THOSE WHO KNOW Dunne are happy topatiently discuss her accomplishments, but theyclearly prefer to steer the conversation away fromDunne's visual impairment.

"That's the standard reaction. People see thehandicap and not the person," says Kate Lingley'93-'94, a friend and skiing partner. "She doesn'tmake it part of her personality."

"She's remarkable for who she is, not whatshe's done in spite of everything," echoes Dunne'sfriend Simmons.

Dunne is similarly eager for people not tofocus excessively on her disability. "It's not theloss of sight that makes a problem," she says."It's how people regard you that's the problem."

Still, Dunne doesn't mean that to be taken asan edict for the non-disabled establishment toneglect concerns for the visually impaired. Whileshe is quick to praise the many people who havegone out of their way to help her, she saysHarvard has been far from perfect in accommodatingall her needs.

Each semester, Dunne says, she had to make surewell in advance that the books on the readinglists would be accessible in some form. The bookswould either have to be obtained on braille, or beread onto tape or in person. Dunne says shegenerally had to make special arrangements forthis to happen, because relatively few books areavailable in braille or on tape.

Dunne says her switch from economics to EastAsian Studies was partly a result of the EconomicsDepartment's often unhelpful attitude towards her,something she does not feel can be excused by hedepartments' size, particularly since she was theonly visually impaired student in the department.

"I don't think they were unhappy to see me go,"she says of the Economics Department. "I had madea lot of demands."

To alleviate the pressure put on roommates ofvisually impaired and other disabled students,Dunne cofounded Networks, a campus group whosemission encompasses a variety of roles. The groupmatches community volunteers with disabled peopleto help' with such task as shopping and laundry.

Despite efforts on the part of herself andothers, it is clear that Dunne will always facesome obstacles as a result of her visualimpairment and other's perceptions of it.

But Dunne and her friends do not expect that tostop her from achieving her ultimate goals.

"When she sets her mind to something, shedoesn't give in until she gets what she wants,"says Zabelski, her stepfather.

Agrees Lingley: "She's just determined not tolet anything stop her."CrimsonZachary M. SchragCARA A. DUNNE