New local non-profit aims to promote the sport of paralympic shooting

Mason Force

The U.S. Adaptive Target Athletics is a non-profit organization that aims to promote the paralympic sport of competition shooting among people with disabilities.

It’s founder, Len Esparza, is reaching out to disabled students on campus to introduce the possibility of professional shooting and, eventually, even competing at the Paralympics.

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The USATA also aims to increase general knowledge about the sport shooting, which Esparza said is widely unknown.

“A problem with our sport is that it’s all but invisible,” Esparza said. “When people think about shooting and shooting sports, the first thing that comes to mind is hunting and combat … sport shooting is the invisible third leg.”

Sport shooting is an official, though little-known, professional sport that requires concentration and mental stamina rather than focusing on physical ability. The sport includes precision airguns, .22 caliber rifles and shotguns in a variety of accuracy-based events, some of which require aiming at targets as small as the period at the end of this sentence. Esparza said the accuracy required of the shooters is often so precise that it can only be measured with the aid of computer tracking equipment.

For the Paralympics, competition is divided into categories based on the nature of individual disabilities. The three categories are competitors that require a stand, competitors that are able to support their rifle themselves and competitors that are visually impaired.

Esparza said shooters compete against opponents that are the most evenly matched in terms of physical abilities.

“It’s very adaptable,” Esparza said. “If you are a person with a disability, we can adapt the sport so that you are competing against people on a very level playing field.”

Esparza identifies as disabled himself and said shooting is the perfect sport for disabled people who are unable to compete in more physical activities.

Among others, the sport is open to individuals with spinal cord injuries, amputated or missing limbs, wheelchair users and those with brain injuries or defects such as cerebral palsy. Esparza emphasizes that though shooting requires less strength than other sports, it is high-stress and very mentally stimulating.

“It’s not like a soccer match,” Esparza said. “Most of the action is inside the athlete’s head.”

Esparza recalled how difficult it had become for athletes to fund their own way to the Rio Olympic games. He decided then to start the USATA to attract more athletes and increase the visibility of professional shooting. The organization continues to attract new shooters, who Esparza refers to as “plinkers.”

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“We see a progression of people when they start shooting,” Esparza said. “We hope to convert some of those plinkers into proto-athletes who realize they could be pretty good and go out and seek coaching.”

The USATA is gradually increasing in scope. Esparza spoke with excitement about several shooting garments he is having custom-made on campus which improve athlete performance and are made specifically for paralympians. These garments are currently being produced by Dr. Juyeon Park’s product design class.

Esparza communicates with several USATA charter members about promoting the sport.

One of these members is Tricia Downing, a professional athlete who lives in Denver.

After she was paralyzed from the waist down in 2000, Downing discovered sport shooting as a way to continue her athletic career. She recently represented the United States at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and is currently training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, where she hopes to medal.

Downing said she is optimistic about the potential of the USATA to attract new athletes and increase public awareness about her sport, which she says often includes misconceptions.

“The USATA is really open to anybody who is willing to put in the time and mental energy to perform well in the sport,” Downing said. “Shooting has been a paralympic sport for years and it’s still relatively little-known.”

Downing said that the guns the athletes use are purely for competition.

“The firearms we use are just a competitive instrument,” Downing said. “It’s a really difficult sport, but it’s really satisfying to hit that perfect 10. It’s amazing.”

More information about the USATA can be found at usadaptivetargetathletics.org.

Collegian reporter Mason Force can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @masforce1.