Written by Brian Rank
SOCHI, Russia – When Kevin Burton straps into his skis and propels himself down the Paralympic cross-country course just two years after re-learning to ski again, it is clear that his classification as vision impaired applies to eyesight only. Burton knows where he wants to go.
Burton competes in the middle vision impaired classification, B2, after he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa while serving in the Navy. He earned himself a spot on the US Paralympic Nordic Skiing team in 2014 and now has clinched two top-10 finishes at his Paralympic debut in two of the Paralympics’ most strenuous endurance events, cross-country and biathlon. Burton is the embodiment of the phrase: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
For those new to the sport, most visually impaired skiers use a guide with unimpaired vision who maintains a distance in front of the paralympian during competition and acts as a navigator. Through a radio headset, the guide is able to communicate coming terrain changes, the location of other competitors and, in the case of biathlon, ensure the transition from shooting position back to skiing is quick and smooth.
As is often the case, Burton’s guide for most of the Paralympics, David Chamberlain, is an accomplished athlete himself who still competes in cross-country races. Burton said he has a little eyesight left, but needs to rely on his guide to navigate the course, especially in the flat lighting on snow and dark shadows found on a cross-country or biathlon course.
Relying on someone to lead the way during a race takes a certain amount of trust, Burton said. But added he and Chamberlain have been working together for two years and compete well as a team.
“I know if I follow him, he’s doing what’s best,” he said. “If I can keep up with him, I know I’ll be alright.”
Burton was a skier well before he was diagnosed while working as an Arabic linguist in the US Navy. After his discharge in 2012 he attended the VA’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, CO, and stepped into his skis again. He quickly proved to be an exceptional athlete and was named to the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Development Team that same year.
He was soon racking up wins at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup. Earning two second-place finishes in biathlon and three third-place rankings in cross-country. At the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Championships, he won first-place twice.
Burton is an alumnus of the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization that helps injured active and retired military personnel live fulfilling lives. He said he is inspired by fellow WWP alumni when he hears about how they are living active lives.
“It keeps giving you motivation to go out and make the best out of life because that’s what everyone else is doing,” he said.
Burton added that if any WWP alumni are debating trying out sports, they should definitely give it a go.
“It’s life changing, it’s so much fun,” he said. “They won’t regret it.“