Sean Halsted is breathing heavily when he rolls onto the ground and reaches for his weapon.
He steadies himself and aims his rifle at a small target 10 meters away in the trees. A shot rings out as he squeezes the trigger. Four more follow. Then he rights himself, drives his ski poles into the ground and heads down a wooded path.
Halsted, 40, is a member of the U.S. National Paralympic Biathlon Team. A paraplegic since a 1998 training accident, he uses a specially
designed ski to compete in a grueling sport that combines cross country skiing and shooting.
He and five other disabled athletes traveled to Casper Mountain this week for a summer training camp. The athletes, who’ve all experienced spinal cord injuries or lower-body amputations, are training for a shot at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
But the sport offers more than a chance at a medal. It also provides a new sense of purpose following a life-altering injury.
“You are getting out of the comfort zone,” said Halsted, who competed in cross country skiing at the 2010 Winter Paralympics. “You are going out and doing something versus sitting on your couch and getting weaker.”
There’s no snow on the mountain, so the athletes use modified mountain boards with wheels to simulate cross country skiing. Seats are bolted onto the boards and the men use ski poles to push themselves along the course.
Some, like Halsted, have years of experience in Paralympic sports. Others are rookies, with only a few days of training.
Halsted served in Air Force special operations before injuring his spine when he fell from a helicopter. At first he worried about spending the rest of his life playing video games. Then someone at Veterans Affairs introduced him to “adaptive sports” that have been modified for people with disabilities.
The Idaho resident tried several sports but gravitated toward cross country skiing. Then he decided to give biathlon a shot. The sport requires strength and endurance, but also the ability to accurately fire a rifle as your heart pounds.
Halsted craves the intensity of the race.
“It’s that lactic-acid burn,” he said. “It’s that taste in your mouth.”
The sport has a way of reducing the obstacles that come with being paraplegic. The inconveniences. The aches and pains that come with sitting in a wheelchair.
“The hurdles no longer become a mountain,” Halsted said. “They become an anthill.”
Rob Rosser is a director of the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club. He’s also a coach for the U.S. National Paralympic Biathlon Team and recruits new athletes for the program.
Five of the six athletes at this week’s training camp served in the military. The sport gives them a chance to represent their country in a different role, Rosser said.
Moving and shooting
One Navy SEAL-turned-biathlete told Rosser the sport had a lot in common with his old job. They both involve moving and shooting.
“The biggest thing is it gives them a real focus and goal,” said Rosser, himself a veteran of the Iraq War.
This week’s training camp was John Kremer’s first attempt at the biathlon. The 27-year-old lost his left leg when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan last September. Doctors later amputated the right one as well.
Kremer saw a biathlon demonstration while recovering at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. He decided to give the sport a try.
“It looked interesting, I guess,” he said, after completing a time trial race near the Casper Mountain Nordic ski center.
The sport requires adjustments. Kremer developed his leg muscles in order to use his prosthetic limbs but is now working on his upper body to handle the demands of cross country skiing.
He’s also working on balancing himself on the mountain board. He fell the first time he tried a turn.
Still, Kremer is enjoying himself.
“I’d probably give it a 10 out of 10 for a sport,” he said.
Augusto “Goose” Perez is the only athlete at the camp without military experience. The 38-year-old, who was born in Spain and lives in Syracuse, N.Y., lost his left leg to cancer in 2003.
Perez has competed twice before at the Paralympic Winter Games, but as a curler. He wanted a new challenge and decided to try biathlon
As a civilian, Perez lacks the shooting experience of the other athletes at the camp. But he has a passion for competition, whatever the activity.
“If I was making an omelet with my mom,” he said, “I’d compete with her.”