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Para Sport 101: How Visually Impaired Biathlon Works

By Alex Abrams | Nov. 30, 2020, 4:15 p.m. (ET)

Mia Zutter and her guide Kristina Trygstad-Saari compete in the Women's 7.5 km Visually Impaired Classic at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 17, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.

Mia Zutter fired a shotgun when she was around 9 years old, but she wasn’t particularly good at it. She missed the can she was aiming at, and the recoil from the shotgun hurt her shoulder.

Three years later, at age 12, Zutter was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which is an inherited disorder of the retina that affects young people. Her vision gradually declined, and she now only has her peripheral vision.

Over the years, the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, native developed into a strong cross-country skier. Naturally, she was surprised when it was suggested she take things one step further and try Para biathlon, which is a variation on the traditional biathlon that combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting.

“There was definitely (a feeling) like, ‘What? You guys are insane. It’s crazy enough that I ski down these big hills, and now you want me to shoot a gun?’” she said. 

Zutter qualified for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in cross-country skiing, but she hopes to someday get better at Para biathlon. She said the event “haunts” her in a good way. 

Biathlon has been adapted so athletes with varying degrees of visual loss can compete by shooting at targets they can hear but not see. 

While most visually impaired athletes use a personal guide to help direct them around the course while skiing, they’re on their own when it comes to the shooting portion of the competition.

Instead of firing traditional rifles, visually impaired athletes aim with audio rifles that are like laser guns plugged into a digital board. Athletes wear headphones while shooting, and they follow high-pitched sounds they hear to find the targets. 

“To me, it’s like a very slow, monotone beeping when you’re off-target,” Zutter said. “And as you’re moving closer to the target, the pitch increases so it becomes higher pitched and the beeps are closer together.

“So when you’re on-target, ready to shoot or pull the trigger, it sounds kind of like a mosquito in your ear, like really annoying, like that high-pitched. And then it’s just like one steady stream of beeping.”

Eileen Carey, director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing, said audio rifles essentially take thousands of photographs a second. Those images are used to determine how close an athlete is to a target, and the target lights up either green or red depending on if it has been hit or missed.

Since visually impaired athletes aim using only audio cues, their guides during the skiing portion of the biathlon wouldn’t be able to help them shoot, even if it were permitted. 

Audio rifles don’t fire bullets or shoot a laser that’s visible to the naked eye.

“The guide would have no way of knowing whether or not they’re close (to the target) or not. You can’t tell at all from the outside,” Carey said. “You have to have the headphones on because there’s no sight on the gun. Looking from the outside, there’s no way to know whether or not you’re actually on target.”

Gary Colliander, the biathlon coach for U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing, said visually impaired skiers tend to be good shots. It’s common for them to hit at least 9 out of 10 targets or at least 18 out of 20, he said, and they can do it in less than one minute.

Colliander said athletes who were born with some level of vision are at an advantage because they can envision what a shooting range setup looks like — unlike athletes who have been blind their entire lives.

They have to learn to shoot strictly by feel or someone else’s description.  

“Many of the basic shooting mechanics apply, and the shooting position is the same. But depending on (an athlete’s) level of vision, I really need to remind myself to talk through the process in more detail and even break it down into segments,” Colliander said. 

“I learned how to shoot primarily by using my vision and watching others. So with visually impaired skiers, I need to ask them a lot of questions about what they are feeling or how they interpret my cues.”

Unlike in other Para biathlon classes, visually impaired athletes don’t use their own rifles during competitions. With the audio rifle, headphones and target connected, it’s too difficult for the equipment to be swapped out for each athlete.

Instead, World Para Nordic Skiing has a set of equipment that all athletes use at international biathlon competitions. 

Zutter said she often practices indoors because she can’t set up the biathlon equipment herself on snow. Instead, she tries to simulate a race without going outside. 

Some athletes will simulate racing by roller skiing, which is similar to cross-country skiing but with wheels attached to skis for riding on hard surfaces.

Once her heart rate is up, Zutter will practice shooting. She said she’s anxious to try it for real sometime soon in a competition. 

“It’s definitely kind of itching at me to get back out there and compete in the biathlon again,” Zutter said. “It’s not (like) riding a bike at all. If I take a break, I’m starting over. That’s kind of how I feel.” 

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordic.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. 

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