Biathlon may be the toughest endurance sport in the Olympics. After grueling circuits of Nordic skiing, athletes have to calm their breathing, steady their tired legs and shoot tiny targets with a rifle.
Andy Soule does it all with only his arms.
"It's a steep learning curve, learning to sit-ski," says Soule, a member of the U.S. Paralympic team. He's strapped into a seat attached to two fixed cross-country skis. He speeds along the course by hauling himself with ski poles.
Soule, who will begin the Paralympic biathlon competition Saturday in Sochi, Russia, lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Army in 2005. He tried a few different sports as part of his rehab, and in 2007, on a whim, he borrowed a rifle and tried a biathlon race.
"I hit two of my 10 shots, maybe — very shaky," he recalls with a laugh.
Shaky or not, Soule caught the attention of Team USA, and at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics became the only American ever to win a medal in biathlon — in either the Paralympics or the able-bodied games.
Soule is modest about his medal and his marksmanship; he was also rated an expert with a rifle during his Army career.
He's not the only American in the Paralympics who learned to shoot in the military. Another is Dan Cnossen, who is still active duty in the Navy.
"I wanted to move and shoot like I used to," he says.
Cnossen was leading a Navy SEAL platoon in Afghanistan when a bomb cost him both his legs in 2009. The damage was severe and recovery was tough. At first, all he could focus on was improving a little each day.
"At one point, improvement was sitting up out of bed — because I hadn't for weeks — and my balance was all gone," he says. "They had to hold me and let go and I'd fall back down. But I always focus on the next steps, and the next thing you know, I'm running."
Cnossen started running on prosthetic blades, then tried skiing — and then made the U.S. team for Sochi. The advantage for a Navy SEAL like Cnossen is that he has the skills to ski his fastest right up to the target range and then calm down quickly and shoot.
Other military habits don't help. In combat, Cnossen says, he needed to be aware of everything around him. At the biathlon, that's all distraction.
"I'm so aware of other skiers, people cheering, the announcer talking — I need to tune that out, but it's hard," he says. "You just have to focus on those five shots, on that little black circle."
Of course, Cnossen would still rather be leading Navy SEALs. But for sports, he says, the biathlon might be as close as it gets.
"I can move and shoot. I can be on a team," he says. "I can travel, train hard for a goal — seems like a pretty good transition."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In what winter Olympic sport has the U.S. never won a medal? You may have heard that it's biathlon, the skiing and shooting event, but that's not quite right. In Vancouver 2010, the U.S. did win a biathlon medal in the Paralympics. The Paralympics began in the 1940s with wounded soldiers from World War II. The Sochi Paralympic Games begin today and, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, the U.S. team includes several veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the only American to medal in biathlon.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Cross country skiing is a tough endurance sport. The biathlon makes it harder. You have to stop, shoot and hit a target. Last month, the U.S. Paralympic team was training at 9,000 feet in Winter Park, Colorado. Andy Soule was breathing hard as he reached the top of a nasty uphill circuit.
Soule is an Army veteran. In 2005, he lost both his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan. He's strapped into a kind of seat, mounted on two thick skis. It's all arm strength as he hauls away on his ski poles. At the top, he spins around and heads back down.
ANDY SOULE: Yeah, driving with the outside pole, it allows you to life the outside ski off the snow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Outside pole, quick, quick, quick. Keep moving it, keep turning it. Come on.
LAWRENCE: One of the coaches is yelling tips from the sidelines, but Andy Soule already has the technique down pretty well. Not that he'll say that. Soule is painfully modest, even talking about his bronze medal at the Paralympics in Vancouver four years ago.
SOULE: The competition went well for me. I got a fourth place and a third place. The third place is America's first Olympic or Paralympic medal in biathlon.
LAWRENCE: So you made history? That's what blushing sounds like on the radio. Same thing with his marksmanship.
SOULE: I was familiar with the basics of marksmanship.
LAWRENCE: He won't mention that he held the army's highest rating with a rifle. At the target range, the skiers fling themselves prone and fire air rifles at five black bull's eyes. Soule says the tricky party of biathlon is skiing hard and then calming down to hold a rifle steady. Even harder if you've been skiing using only your arms.
Marksmanship under pressure is something that a few on the team learned in the military.
DAN CNOSSEN: I'm Dan Cnossen, a member of the U.S. Paralympic Nordic ski team. I'm also an active duty service member in the Navy.
LAWRENCE: Cnossen lead a Navy SEAL team. In 2009, he lost both his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan. Recovery was tough, but he focused on improving a little each day.
CNOSSEN: At one point, improvement was sitting up out of bed because I hadn't done it for weeks and my balance was all gone. And they had to hold me and let go and then I'd fall back down. But I always focus on the next steps, and the next thing you know, I'm running.
LAWRENCE: He started running on prosthetic blades, and then tried skiing and then joined the U.S. team for Sochi. The advantage for a Navy SEAL like Cnossen is that he can ski his fastest right up to the target range and then calm down and shoot. Other military habits do not help. Cnossen says, in combat, he needed to be aware of everything around him. That's all a distraction at the biathlon.
CNOSSEN: I'm so aware of other skiers and people cheering, the announcer talking. I need to tune that out, but it's hard. It's hard. You just have to focus on five shots on that little black circle.
LAWRENCE: Of course, he'd still rather be leading Navy SEALs. But Cnossen says, for sports, the biathlon might be about as close as it gets.
CNOSSEN: I can move and shoot. I can be on a team. I can travel, train hard for a goal. It seems like a pretty good transition.
LAWRENCE: The Paralympic biathlon begins tomorrow in Sochi, Russia. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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