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 deployment in Iraq, in May 2008, Baskis lost his vision entirely during a military operation while serving with the U.S. Army.
But losing his sight didn’t mean Baskis lost his spirit. Baskis is spending this week in Summit County at the Hartford Ski Spectacular, training with the hope of someday making the U.S. Paralympic biathlon ski team.
Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and shooting — typically the course involves skiing a route with shooting ranges along the way and firing at five targets. 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.”
Baskis spent the last few months on snow in Wyoming and Montana, and trained in September at Lake Placid. There, he met guide Patrick Viljaan, who is working with Baskis this week at the Frisco Nordic Center.
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, Baskis said.
In order to complete the event, Baskis follows a guide like Viljaan, who wears a speaker system. The guide 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.”
While this is Baskis’ first year at the Ski Spectacular, he has been enjoying the outdoors for years. Less than a year after his injury, Baskis undertook what he likes to call his first “blind endeavor” by joining the first team of blind climbers from the U.S., Canada and Mexico to summit the eighth-tallest peak in North America — a 17,000-foot volcano in Mexico.
“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, the Ski Spectacular event is a great step in 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.”
“It’s great to try something new, and it’s always nice to be outside.”