When nearly a dozen adaptive athletes gathered in Casper, Wyoming in late August, they had a world-class shooting range to practice on for a few days.
They got to roller ski on trails built to meet the rules and regulations of the International Paralympic Committee, the International Biathlon Union and the International Ski Federation.
They even had a few Paralympians to mentor them as they get introduced to Para Nordic skiing.
The Casper Mountain Biathlon Club doesn’t need snow on the ground to teach a group of athletes with a variety of physical impairments how to ski and compete in the biathlon.
The club hosted its Para Nordic skiing dryland camp from August 25-29 at its unique venue in central Wyoming. Around 10 athletes attended, including several military veterans.
“What they get out of it is a really good challenge, both physically and mentally, and I hope it’s a motivator for them, too,” said Rob Rosser, the executive director and head coach for the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club.
“The whole reason the (Department of Veterans Affairs) started pushing this for veterans is because it was so positive and so motivating to turn around a very difficult and challenging situation, such as losing your legs for example or an arm or something like that. It’s pretty easy to get depressed, as you might imagine. …
“The whole purpose was to get people off the couch, get them outside, get them active (and) get them feeling good about themselves, both physically and mentally. It’s just an overall awesome experience.”
The athletes brought all levels of experience in Para Nordic skiing to the camp. They ranged from newcomers to a pair of two-time Winter Paralympians in Bryan Price and Jeremy Wagner.
It was a unique mix of standing skiers, sit skiers and visually impaired skiers, ranging in age from a woman who’s under 20 to several veterans in their late 50s and early 60s.
The athletes were able to get on roller skis — or mountainboards that are like skateboards — and practice their skiing for a few days. They also worked on shooting targets, either with an air rifle or an audio rifle plugged into a digital board for visually impaired athletes.
Rosser said the camp hopefully left an impression on the athletes that extends beyond just the basics of Para Nordic skiing.
“It’s not just the sport. It’s everything that goes along with it,” Rosser said. “That’s true on the able-bodied side as well, but it’s definitely more easily understandable when you’re looking at a soldier who defended their country.”
Kevin Bittenbender, a coach with U.S Paralympics Nordic Skiing and one of Rosser’s good friends, was at the camp to work with the athletes. In addition, Price and Wagner helped mentor the less experienced skiers while both of them are in Casper to train. They competed alongside each other at the Winter Olympic Games Sochi 2014 and four years later in PyeongChang.
“They’re both in sit skis, so we’ve found that it works really well to have these more experienced athletes training right along with the newbies and kind of giving them the perspective from the sit ski literally,” Rosser said. “Obviously, they can relate better to it than those of us that are standing athletes.”
Casper has become a training ground for Paralympians over the years.
Rosser said all the skiers who competed for Team USA in Sochi and PyeongChang spent some time training in Casper.
At the same time, Dan Cnossen, who has earned six medals in two Paralympics, has flown to Casper to train. He was named to the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team for the 2021-22 season.
In 2015, the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club broke ground on its new venue that includes various trails and a 30-point shooting range that’s equipped with lights so athletes can practice at night.
The venue was built to accommodate both able-bodied and Para athletes. It began hosting skiers during the 2015-16 season.
Rosser said snow isn’t required to teach Para Nordic skiing to a group of beginners.
“I would tell athletes in Florida that it doesn’t matter where you live,” Rosser said. “Like (three-time medalist) Andy Soule would come up here (to Casper) and train prior to the 2002 Paralympics and such. He’s from Texas.”