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Blind woman finds passions in ‘things my eyes tell me I shouldn’t do’

Lori Kettner talks about her life at her Fergus Falls, Minn. home on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Carrie Snyder / The Forum1 / 3
Lori Kettner, despite being legally blind and colorblind, runs an alterations business out of her Fergus Falls, Minn., home. Her husband helps her match colors of material and thread. Carrie Snyder / The Forum2 / 3
Lori Kettner, despite being legally blind and colorblind, runs an alterations business out of her Fergus Falls, Minn., home. Her husband helps her match colors of material and thread. Carrie Snyder / The Forum3 / 3

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. – She talks excitedly about a blush-pink wedding gown, the charcoal grey of a bridesmaid’s dress and lush ivory lace she picked out for a customer.

Her hands deftly guide fabric through the sewing machine in her basement shop – eyes trained intently and face just inches from her work.

Yet, they are colors she can’t detect and details she struggles to see.

This professional seamstress, gymnastics coach, artist and former pole vaulter is legally blind.

“I seem to seek things my eyes tell me I shouldn’t do,” said Lori Kettner, a 35-year-old wife and mother from Fergus Falls.

Kettner was born with a rare hereditary condition called Achromatopsia, which affects fewer than 10,000 people in the U.S. But she’s managed to thrive in daily life and excel at activities that many with compromised vision wouldn’t dare try.

Kettner ties her tenacious nature back to one sport and one coach through whom she learned she could do just about anything.

Gymnastics boosts confidence

Kettner says she was an awkward child who looked so different from everyone else.

Growing up in Cass Lake, she was self-conscious about the dark glasses she had to wear and wanted more than anything to feel accepted.

“So I just started seeking what I knew as normalcy, which was doing things that people with bad vision maybe shouldn’t do,” Kettner said.

It began when gymnasts from her hometown performed at a halftime show.

Feeling inspired, the shy 15-year-old asked the coach if she could do gymnastics even though she was visually impaired.

Shannon Littlewolf, now Shannon Henning of St. Francis, told her to give it a try.

It was a late start in a sport children often pick up as preschoolers, but Kettner didn’t mind towering over teammates half her age. In fact, she blossomed.

“I was like a plant that finally got some sunshine,” Kettner said.

As Henning tells it, Kettner’s father secretly expressed concerns but asked the coach not to give his daughter special treatment.

“She told me, ‘You can do this just like everybody else,’ ” said Kettner, adding, “Thank God for that.”

Kettner worked her way up the competitive team, doing all four events – even the 4-inch wide balance beam – giving her a level of confidence she’d never known.

“Gymnastics got me to start believing in myself,” she said.

What she sees

Kettner only recently learned the exact name for her eye issues.

A trip to University of Minnesota Medical Center gave her the diagnosis of Achromatopsia, an umbrella term for the four distinct vision problems she experiences.

She’s severely intolerant of light, causing her to lose all ability to focus in bright conditions.

“It’s like if you were trying to look at something and someone turned a flashlight on in your face,” she said.

She’s also colorblind. Though her world is black and white, “It’s a fabulous value scale of everything in between,” she said.

Kettner is extremely nearsighted – not able to recognize people past about 8 feet.

Her 20/200 vision can be corrected to about 20/100 with special contact lenses, which include a brown filter to reduce sensitivity to light.

And lastly, she has nystagmus, uncontrolled, repetitive movements of the eyes. “My eyeballs twitch back and forth,” she said.

As a result, she can’t track quick movement, the main factor that keeps her from driving a car.

The challenges

After gymnastics and then cheerleading in high school, her next challenges involved college academics and athletics.

A studio art major at Concordia College in Moorhead, Kettner focused on pencil drawings and monochromatic paintings, relying on a sharp value scale in her colorblind world.

“It pushed me as an artist,” she said.

While at Concordia in the late 1990s, she became one of the first women pole vaulters after a coach spotted her on campus doing gymnastics.

Concordia men’s cross country coach Garrick Larson coached men and women pole vaulters at the time and asked Kettner to try.

He said it was visually intimidating for her, so they took small steps in training.

“Even though she was a little scared, she didn’t want to be limited,” Larson said.

At first, she couldn’t see the crossbar from where she stood and had to memorize a certain number of steps as her only guide.

After she was fitted with special contact lenses, her perspective changed.

“I was thinking, ‘I liked it more when I couldn’t see the dumb thing,’ ” she said with a laugh.

Sunglasses weren’t dark enough for Kettner to tolerate the bright sun, so Larson ordered two pairs and doubled up the lenses.

“I layered them like pancakes so she could vault outside,” he said.

Even so, while she was a four-year athlete, she managed only one outdoor season because of her light sensitivity.

Craving Independence

Not being able to get around on her own is the biggest stumbling block for Kettner.

She and husband, Matt, an employee of Bobcat in Fargo, have two boys, 9-year-old Jacob and almost 2-year-old Bennett, neither of whom inherited her genetic eye abnormalities.

Kettner relies on her husband to drive her and the kids around when he can, and close friends take her places when he’s at work.

Kettner is grateful for the help but wishes she didn’t have to depend on others.

She does, however, gladly welcome help from her husband and oldest son with matching thread to whatever garment she’s working on.

Kettner doesn’t like telling customers she’s colorblind.

“I feel my work is good enough, that there’s no reason for them to know, necessarily,” she said.

But if it comes up in conversation, she’s happy to share it.

Now in wedding mode, Kettner just finished a busy prom season, along with directing the spring show for Fergus Falls Gymnastics Academy.

Those commitments kept her from coaching this last season, but she’s back in the fall.

Kettner mostly works with beginner gymnasts because she’s not comfortable spotting faster skills, but her value has far-reaching impact.

“She’s remarkable,” said Cindy Appert, a teacher and gymnastics club board member.

“She brings that whole ‘Gymnastics is fun, and it’s for everyone’ attitude,” Appert said.

At age 35, “ancient” for a gymnast, Kettner can still impress by doing an aerial cartwheel or plopping down into the splits.

It puts her life into perspective.

“Sewing is a passion, but it’s my career, my paycheck,” Kettner said.

“The gym is my happy place,” she adds, with a wide smile.