The Paralympic biathlon involves rifle shooting, even if you can't see


The Paralympic flag, left, is seen beside the Russian national flag during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, March 7, 2014.


Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

Kevin Burton was never interested in winter sports until he was diagnosed with a serious visual impairment. Now he's a biathlete — cross-county skiing and shooting — competing in Sochi with the US Paralympic team.

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Most Olympic athletes train for years to prepare for the ultimate sports competition. But for athletes in the Paralympics, the journey is often different. Many of these athletes come to their sport only as a result of injury or illness. 

Kevin Burton was an Arabic linguist in the United States Navy when was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. At a rehab center in Georgia, he discovered the biathlon. 

“I didn’t pick up skiing until 2011,” Burton says, “when I was going through blind rehabilitation through the VA [Veterans Administration]. When I went to the training camp, I wasn't really sure what to expect. But at the end of it, I met with the coaches and they asked me if I would be willing to train full-time with hopes to make it to Sochi.”

Burton found he loved the combination of the intense exertion of cross-country skiing and the patience required to shoot, especially when you're blind.

“It’s pretty similar for visually-impaired skiers to cross-country ski,” says Burton. “The only difference from able-bodied people is that we ski with a guide in front of us all the time that we follow, and they keep us safe.”

Shooting a rifle is another matter. 

Burton says it’s hard to stop when your heart is racing from skiing and then be really precise with a rifle. Burton shoots an electronic rifle, something like a high-tech laser pointer, and his aim is guided by sound. The rifle emits varying beeping pitches depending on how far the shooter is from the bullseye.

Burton has had some success in competition. In December 2013, he won the Men’s Sprint Adaptive Cross Country Ski Race at the Yellowstone Ski Festival in West Yellowstone, Montana. At Sochi, he is currently ranked 10th, 14th and 16th in his events.

“Being only my second year skiing,” Burton says, “my chances for a medal aren’t that great, but I'm skiing better than I ever have. So, especially with biathlon, if I have a good day shooting and skiing, anything can happen.”