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Paralympics: Athletes find humor in visually impaired biathlon

WHISTLER, British Columbia – Even the Paralympic athletes who compete in biathlon sometimes have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of visually impaired people shooting rifles.

“Blind biathlon is a bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it?” joked visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever. “The first time I heard about it I laughed.”

McKeever races in the 12.5-kilometer biathlon at the Paralympics on Wednesday. The sport combines cross-country skiing and target shooting.



For the shooting, visually impaired skiers use a special rifle with a infrared beam that converts light into sound. The rifle is hard-wired to a computer.

“You put the headset on,” McKeever said. “You cycle the action on the rifle and it beeps faster and faster with a higher and higher pitch the closer you are to the center (of the target) … You are listening for the solid, high-pitched tone.”



It may sound simple, but it isn’t.

“Everyone talks about eye-hand combination, but ear-hand combination really doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s difficult to use your ears to hone in on a sound as opposed to using your eyes.”

Robin McKeever, Brian’s brother and guide, said using your ears to sight a rifle takes plenty of practice.



“It’s far harder to aim a rifle through sound because you have four directions in order to find center,” he explained. “With your eyes you know where center is and which direction you have to move the rifle to get there.

“Your ears only hear a tone. So the tone is stronger to your left or your right. You don’t know that until you wave the rifle around to find it.”

McKeever, who is better at skiing than shooting, won Canada’s first gold medal of the 2010 Paralympics in the 20-kilometer cross-country race Monday. He was sixth in Sunday’s 3-kilometer biathlon, and rates his medal chances Wednesday as “hit and miss.”

Mark Arendz will compete in the standing class. Since Arendz is an amputee with vision, the 20-year-old will use an air rifle that fires a pellet at the target.

His rifle has been customized to fit him.

“With shooting, consistency is the key to success,” Arendz said. “The same all the time with what we are looking for.”

Arendz caught his left arm in the blades of a grain auger when he was 7 years old, which resulted in the limb being amputated below the elbow. Even though the rifle Arendz uses is different than McKeever’s, the desired result is the same.

“We rely on our eyes and control with our hands,” said Arendz. “They rely on their ears. … They use a different sense to get a perfect shot.”


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