FRISCO, Colo. (AP) — Ever since he was young, Steve Baskis wanted to serve in the military like his father and grandfather before him. But just eight months into his Army deployment in Iraq, in May 2008, Baskis lost his vision entirely during a military operation.
Losing his sight didn’t mean Baskis lost his spirit. Baskis recently spent time at the Frisco Nordic Center, training with the hope of someday making the U.S. Paralympic biathlon ski team.
Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and shooting. Missing a target means skiing a penalty loop, increasing the race time.
“My ultimate goal is to make the team at some point,” Baskis said. “I’m still learning quite a bit how to ski.”
A blind biathlete such as Baskis has a special laser rifle system that uses sound to guide him toward the center of the target.
At the shooting stations along the course, Baskis picks up a laser rifle, computer module and headphones. He puts on the headphones, resets the module, raises the rifle and acquires the target by sound. He must use his ears, not his eyes, to line up the shot. Hitting the target results in a positive sound; a miss makes a negative sound, a very depressing sound.
To complete the event, Baskis follows a guide like Patrick Viljaan, who wears a speaker system. He speaks into a microphone, and the sound is projected from a speaker box on his back. Baskis follows the voice — the sound moves left, he moves left.
“It’s like he’s painting a picture with the sound,” Baskis said. “I can triangulate the sound and follow along. It’s always a new learning experience with someone new, but you build a relationship pretty quickly.”
Viljaan said Baskis has gone off the trail a few times, which is easier to do in deeper snow if the tip of the skis catches.
“When we ski, I repeat a ‘hup’ every time I move my poles for him to follow,” Viljaan said. “The No. 1 goal is safety, obviously. I just help him to avoid hitting obstacles or another person.”
Baskis has been enjoying the outdoors for years, including mountain climbing.
“I want to raise awareness through adventure and exploration,” he said. “People are sometimes amazed that you try to do something like this after, but why not?”
In the last five years, he’s also summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the Half Dome in Yosemite and plenty of Colorado’s 14ers.
“I’ve been mountaineering and climbing for the past four years, and there’s always snow and ice on mountains,” Baskis said. “A lot of my guides liked alpine and Nordic skiing, and I always wanted to try.”
Baskis said the biathlon is one of the most challenging things he’s done, and is definitely a full-body workout. He said even though he is just starting out, people are helping him train for his dream of joining the Paralympic team.
“It’s amazing there are programs like this to support veterans and civilians,” he said. “It’s great to try something new, and it’s always nice to be outside.”