The blind skater who uses hearing and feeling to glide effortlessly around the rink
The young woman sports a focused gaze as she glides in graceful circles. She bends her knees as she walks on the ice, her posture remaining straight.
On this Monday afternoon, Cathy Williams is one of a dozen skaters sharing the ice rink at the Ice Arena Wales in Cardiff. Looking at it, you probably wouldn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary about this particular skater. That is, aside from her moving more elegantly than many others.
But Cathy is registered blind. The 19-year-old has a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which causes the death of light-sensitive cells on the surface of the retina. Her understanding is that she was born with eyesight at about 50% of the normal level. It has since deteriorated to about 10%, and one day it will be completely gone.
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In addition to her PR, Cathy has nystagmus, which causes her eyes to move uncontrollably and further reduce her vision. Her mum Alison says to me, “This is Cathy for you. She doesn’t do things by halves.”
Likewise, affectionate banter is fired freely between mother and daughter throughout the time we spend chatting at the rink. The Newport pair are irrepressibly upbeat and quick to laugh. What also immediately becomes clear is the fear Alison has for Cathy’s on-ice ability, which the mother admits was not inherited from her.
“The first time I went with Cathy, she didn’t fall once and I fell twice,” said the 46-year-old, who remembers hanging on to a fit aid penguin and took 20 minutes to complete a circuit. “It wasn’t for me at all.”
How is Cathy doing? “It’s pure hearing and feeling,” replies the teenager, accustomed to the incredulous questions of people to whom she tells of her passion for ice skating.
As she put on her skates in the locker room, she said, “These metal blades make such a special noise on the ice. When I’m outside, I have to listen to everything, like cars and traffic. Here, it’s just the blades and the voices of other skaters.”
The “feel” part is important so that Cathy knows exactly which part of the blades she is using at all times. The view plays a small role —the brightness of the light strips on the ceiling helps, as does the contrast of its black laces against the ice. Most of the other skaters are wearing blue boots, which stand out against the white surface and help Cathy avoid bumping into anyone.
Alison was not fazed when her daughter was diagnosed with RP. She was aware of the risk, given that Cathy’s father has the disease and the risk of it being passed on from a symptomatic parent is around 50%.
Even though Cathy didn’t receive an official diagnosis until she was four years old, Alison could tell she had vision problems even as a baby. “She was shaking her head all the time because she couldn’t focus her eyes. I called her Noddy.”
Cathy says: “When I was 13 or 14 I was really depressed because I started losing sight a lot at that point. to live.”
She had tried going to the gym as a teenager, but only found a physical activity she enjoyed in 2018, thanks to a chance conversation with her friend Rachel. “One day Rachel was ice skating with her friend and I said, ‘Can I come?’ And she was like, ‘Of course.’
“It started from there. The first time I went there, I had a few falls. But I really had fun and kept coming back. Here, it doesn’t matter that I can’t see.”
As we walk from the locker room to the rink, a Little Mix song blares from the speakers, but Cathy tells me her sense of hearing will still be strong enough to hear the other skaters’ blades on the ice.
She launches onto the rink with fluidity, advancing with precision and determination. Slipping at one point, she gets up in seconds. Sitting next to me in the spectator area, a laughing Alison said, “You gotta get up right now or someone’s gonna take your fingers off.”
Although Alison jokes about the fall, she admits she gets nervous for her daughter. Cathy had already become an adept skater by the time Alison first saw her on the ice, but her motherly concern remains intact even now. “It scares me,” she says, as her eyes remain fixed on Cathy’s progress on the rink. “My heart is in my mouth all the time.”
But Alison is also immensely proud of her daughter, which is never more evident than when I ask her if she was surprised by Cathy’s talent. “I wasn’t surprised,” she says. “There are some things she can’t do, like drive, but there aren’t many.”
Cathy says independence is important to her. Since last year, she has been living alone in Bargoed, the town in Rhymney Valley where her boyfriend Chris lives. They have been together for four years and love to travel. Before Covid hit, they were enjoying vacations in Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Belfast.
For much of the pandemic, Ice Arena Wales was closed. Cathy says it was like losing a lifeline. “I remember waiting by the Alexa every time there was an announcement about the rules, waiting for them to say the rinks could reopen. It does wonders for my mental health.”
The majority of people with early RA like Cathy’s go completely blind by the age of 35, experts told her. “I will get there. It could happen tomorrow or in 50 or 60 years.”
Cathy refuses to let her condition prevent her from living her life to the full. When I ask her if she will continue to ice skate after losing her remaining vision, she says, “I hope I can. I love it so much. Even if it’s just staying close to the wall, I hope I can still do it.”
One of her ambitions is to do more volunteer work for the Guide Dogs charity. Cathy herself has been on a guide dog waiting list for three years. “Covid delayed it because they couldn’t train the dogs, but it could be anytime now,” she says. “It would help because if I’m on my own it’s a bit scary. When I collect for the charity in supermarkets, I tell people, ‘Your donation will help me get a dog.'”
After an hour at Ice Arena Wales, we emerge into the bright spring afternoon, which gives Cathy what she calls “Wotsits” in her eyes – floats of light similar to the famous puffs of corn. As she explains this, Alison offers her thoughts on the new range of Crispy Wotsits: “They literally taste like Nik Naks with cheese.”
“It’s shameful,” Cathy said with a smile, before Alison added, “The Wotsit Giants are the best.” The laughter and chatter continue as the couple head into the parking lot, side by side in the sunshine.