Blind biathletes learn how to ski and shoot at Frisco Nordic Center |

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Blind biathletes learn how to ski and shoot at Frisco Nordic Center

Summit Daily/Mark Fox

Steve Baskis, an Iraq Army veteran, lost his eyesight in 2008 when an improvised explosive device blew up his company’s armored vehicle, killing a friend and cutting through the front of Baskis’ head with a small sliver of metal.

He remembers the day: May 13. He lost his sight, as well as some hearing, smell and taste, but you’d hardly know his life was altered by the incident when chatting with him under Colorado’s bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine.

Baskis finished the friendly biathlon competition at the Frisco Nordic Center as part of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes’ winter camp, which also involved learning to alpine ski.

Soon after his injury, in 2010, Baskis began tandem cycling. He won a medal at the U.S. Road Nationals in Bend, Ore.

“When you think about that, a national championship. The guy’s only been on the bike a year, and he takes bronze medal in his class – it’s somewhat unbelievable,” said Rich Cardillo, the military sport program coordinator for the association.

Now, Baskis is exploring the possibility of becoming a biathlete, which combines Nordic skiing with shooting – typically a good mix for military veterans. After skiing on a Nordic track, competitors must calm their heartbeat to hold the rifle steady. They must clear their minds to be able to focus on the sound of the gun’s laser, synching with its location on the target.

Baskis calls Chicago home, and though he’d never been on skis before this camp, he expects he’ll be able to find ways to continue Nordic skiing and begin training to be a Paralympic athlete.

The winter camp took place during the weekend, and the early part of the week. It’s the third annual such event, and involves a partnership with Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center as well as corporate sponsorship from Anthem Life. Without the partnerships, sponsorships and volunteer efforts, it wouldn’t be possible to bring the 17 campers, ranging in age from 8 to 62, to Colorado to learn alpine and cross-country skiing.

“It’s an opportunity to participate,” association executive director Mark Lucas said. “We all want to participate in physical activity. … Sports offers so many elements important to our psychological well-being.”

It’s not just veterans who benefit. The younger John Hermes, whose sight is impaired and has sensory integration disorder, came to camp as a shy, quiet individual. Not long into the camp, though, he was singing along with his newfound friends, discovered the thrill of tubing and the deliciousness of root beer (he had five in one night).

“You see improvements in participants’ self confidence and interaction,” Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center assistant director Jeff Inouye said, explaining the value of such a camp for participants.

“I notice enthusiasm and appreciation. They’re so thankful for any kind of help, hint, instruction,” said volunteer Jon Kreamelmeyer, who was the U.S. Paralympic cross country ski coach for 10 years and now works for the organization’s development team.

“It helps being out with people like you and organization that know the best way to promote that type of physical activity,” military sports program assistant Lacey Markle said, adding that the idea of camp is to teach and give the tools so participants can maintain the momentum at home, get involved in their community and carry with them the camaraderie they find at the camps.

“The programs we provide offer the veterans or active-duty service members that are blind and visually impaired an opportunity to do something they think they could never do because of their vision loss or because they want to try something they’ve never done before,” Cardillo said. “Once they do something they never do before … it opens so many doors and opportunities to them once they get back home.”

Cardillo likes that he gets to work with soldiers after spending 30 years in the military. He also likes encouraging his participants to regain something they thought they’d lost.

“The reality is, they can do anything they want if they set their mind to it,” he said. “For guys like Steve, it enhances their rehabilitation. They get a lot of rehab through the VA. But sports and physical activity can be a key component to that and helps improve their lifestyle. It brings normalcy into their lives.”