IT’S been an eventful 12 months for Ben Pettingill.
A year ago, he completed the Southern 80s disability course.
‘‘It was an unbelievable feeling to achieve something that when I initially lost my eyesight at 16 I didn’t think was possible,’’ Ben said.
‘‘Getting across that finish line was truly a surreal feeling.’’
Ben’s story — losing his eyesight due to a rare genetic condition literally overnight — is an incredible one.
Due to the media coverage around his racing of the event, he says a lot of people now want to hear his story.
‘‘It’s been an incredibly busy 12 months since the race,’’ Ben said.
‘‘I work as a motivational speaker, so I’ve spent a lot of the year out on the road talking to corporate organisations and school groups about how they can take on anything they dream of.
‘‘No matter what situation you are in, I know that people can achieve their dreams. You have to work hard to get there, but we can all do it.’’
Ben’s biggest personal achievement of the year is proof of this.
Having already completed his course, Ben turned his attention to one of the biggest physical challenges he could find.
In September, he took on the Kokoda Track.
‘‘It was very intense,’’ Ben said.
‘‘It was chalk and cheese to the 80. The 80 you have the adrenaline rush, it happens quickly and it’s over quickly, you’re in a position where every part of it is in a split second.
‘‘With Kokoda, it’s the fatigue that gets you. You’re putting in 12 or 14-hour days for seven days a week in rain and 95 per cent to 100 per cent humidity. It absolutely destroys your body.
‘‘On top of that for me, you have to literally have every footstep of the 130km described to you as you walk.
‘‘It’s a very intense activity, but it’s also very moving. I think it should be something that is on everyone’s bucket list.’’
Last year’s Southern 80 was a learning experience for Ben.
Taking on the disabled course, Ben had bigger plans in mind.
He wanted to take on the full 80km course.
‘‘I’m competing in the 60m/h expert behind 99 Psycho Clowns again, so I do get to do the full 80km,’’ he said.
‘‘The strange thing is that when I first decided to take on the 80, I was unaware that there was a 20km course. I was fully focused on taking on the entire 80km.
‘‘When I first heard about the other class, I decided to go into that so I could get the feel of it, but I always wanted to do the full race.’’
While Ben is open and honest about his condition — you will often hear him make a joke at his own expense — being seen as disabled is not something that sits well with him.
‘‘I’m a big advocate for not being categorised, for not being put in one spot because I’m labelled with a disability,’’ he said.
‘‘I wanted to show people that yes, I live with a disability but that does not mean that I can only compete against other people who have a disability.
‘‘Last year I learnt personally that no matter what situation gets thrown at you in life, the possibilities are endless.’’
Ben will return to Echuca for this year’s race and said he couldn’t wait to see the community who were so welcoming of him last year.
‘‘The support that I got from the Echuca-Moama community was amazing. You learn in those moments just how tight-knit regional communities like this are,’’ he said.
‘‘Just walking around the streets, getting the level of encouragement that I did from complete strangers, it was honestly overwhelming, but it was such an amazing feeling to have.’’
But one person’s support has changed not only Ben’s ski racing career, but a young fan’s too.
When Ben was nearing the finish line last year, Luke Johnson (pictured above) was there showing his support for a hero.
Luke, who is just 13, has been skiing since he was two years old.
He also faces the challenge of being blind.
Where Ben lost his sight overnight, Luke’s was a progressive condition.
Luke suffers from nystagmus and cone dystrophy, which have caused his sight to slowly fade.
He has been legally blind since last year.
Luke’s mother Rachael said it was an incredibly hard hand to be dealt.
‘‘It’s a horrible thing to happen to anyone,’’ Rachael said.
‘‘He’s very strong in the way he’s handled having such a horrible thing happen to him.’’
But it hasn’t stopped his love of racing.
Luke and his family have been attending the Southern 80 for nearly 10 years and, this year, Luke will take to the course himself.
‘‘I’ve always skied and I’ve seen the race before, so I wanted to give it a try,’’ Luke said.
Luke will take on the shorter course in the race, but is just excited to be a part of the sport he loves.
‘‘I just want to have fun while I do it,’’ he said.
Ben said he was proud to have his friend compete.
‘‘I was the first blind competitor, but I didn’t want to be the only one,’’ Ben said.
‘‘I was lucky enough that when Luke and his family came along to watch last year Rachael got inS contact and we got to catch up. We sat down for a couple of hours and had a chat with one another.
‘‘The thing that stood out to me when we spoke was that he has an incredible passion for the sport and that he cannot wait to be able to give it a crack.
‘‘It’s been amazing to be able to spend that time with him at the race and be able to get to know him in the 12 months since, getting to give him some advice about things you can do while ski racing blind. He is an amazing young man and I honestly can’t wait to see him cross that finish line.’’
Two young men at different times of their lives, both who have been dealt the roughest of hands in life.
But the sport they love has seen an incredible bond formed.
One that is so much more than just about a race.