Cara Dunne-Yates, 34; Blind Cyclist, Paralympic Skier

Times Staff Writer

Cara Dunne-Yates, who in her brief sports career won numerous awards in disabled athlete competitions after losing her sight due to cancer when she was 5, has died. She was 34.

Yates died of cancer Oct. 20 at her home in Sutton, Mass., according to her mother, Mary Zabelski. Her family, including her husband and two young children, were with her.

“Cara set an example for everyone, able-bodied and disabled, for how to overcome adversity and live life on your own terms,” said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The center awarded Yates the True Hero of Sports award in 2002.

A scholar and athlete, Yates graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Asian studies and also was a graduate of UCLA Law School. She traveled the world, most often for ski competitions.

“My life has been saved by sports,” Yates said at the True Hero award ceremony. “I feel like God has put me in this position where I can help people see that you can really be sick and have a disability and still have an awesome life.” She was in chemotherapy for cancer at the time.


An only child who was born and raised in Chicago, Yates was a natural athlete. She learned to ride a bicycle the same year she lost her sight due to retinal cancer. Soon afterward, Yates’ mother took her skiing, which was the start of her lifelong passion for the sport.

Yates’ parents divorced when she was 3. Her mother remarried and Yates’ stepfather, Richard Zabelski, became her ski instructor. With him, she developed a technique for team skiing in which a blind skier follows the sound of the sighted leader’s skis.

Yates entered Harvard in 1988, the year she earned a bronze medal in Alpine skiing at the Paralympic Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. She graduated from college in 1992, president of her class.

After graduation, she worked as a volunteer ski instructor for the disabled in Utah and trained for an upcoming winter competition. A recurrence of cancer, this time bone cancer in her cheek, forced her to stop training.

After a year of treatment, she entered UCLA Law School. While she was there she joined the university’s cycling team and began competing in tandem racing.

She met her future husband, Spencer Yates, the sighted partner in another tandem team, at a cycling competition in Atlanta in 1996.

They married two years later and had two children, Elise and Carson.

Shortly after competing in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, Yates was diagnosed with cancer.

Along with her husband, children, mother and stepfather, Yates is survived by her father, Michael Dunne.

A memorial service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 20 at St. Thecla Catholic Church, 6725 W. Devon Ave., Chicago.

Contributions may be made to the Cara Dunne-Yates scholarship fund at the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, 1850 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL 60608-1298.