FORT KENT, Maine — A bicep injury had Jesse Rochester skiing Sunday’s mass-start race at the USA Biathlon Championships with one pole.
For inspiration on the 10th Mountain course, the Maine Winter Sports Center athlete kept his eyes on fellow competitor Omar Bermejo, an adaptive skier who lost his arm from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident about two years ago and now skis with the U.S. Paralympic Nordic team.
“It was really good to see him out there,” Rochester said after posting a time of 37 minutes, 43 seconds on the youth 10K course. “He was really my inspiration for going out there today with one pole.”
Bermejo, a former U.S. Marine, said he took up skiing about a year-and-a-half ago at the suggestion of his physical therapist.
“Part of my therapy was skiing,” he said after Sunday’s race. “One of the paralympic coaches recruited me for biathlon, [and] at that point I had no idea what a biathlon even was.”
Turns out the 30-year-old Bermejo was a natural at the high-intensity sport that combines cross country skiing and marksmanship.
“In the Marines we do a lot of shooting, and the shooting in biathlon reminded me of what we did in the Marines,” he said. “Once I got into it, I was very excited, to say the least.”
That excitement translates to those who compete and work with Bermejo.
While in Fort Kent, the athlete teamed up with local volunteer Alan Thibodeau, who was responsible for scoring Bermejo on the rifle range. The skier used an International Biathlon Union-approved air rifle mounted on a tripod on a shooting lane reserved for the paralympian.
Traditionally, biathletes use .22-caliber rifles which they carry on slings around their backs as they ski.
Some countries, Bermejo said, do not allow adaptive athletes to carry or use firearms, thus preventing them from using the rifles in competition.
“To be fair to everyone, the [International Paralympic committee] lets us all use air rifles,” he said.
At the same time, some of those same countries do not allow the adaptive athletes to even carry weapons, so to even that playing field, the IPC rules allow the air rifles to be mounted in place rather than carried around the course.
“But when I train and shoot on my own, I carry and use a .22 rifle,” Bermejo said.
During the competition, Thibodeau kept track of the targets hit in each of Bermejo’s shooting rounds as he competed in sprint, pursuit and mass-start races over three days of competition.
“I’ll tell you what, I’d follow him anywhere,” Thibodeau said.
“We could make a really good team,” Bermejo said with a wide grin.
In addition to scoring, Thibodeau, 65, a former United States Army Pathfinder Ranger, assisted in loading Bermejo’s gun and offering some coaching tips after each shooting round.
“It’s been really good working with him,” Thibodeau said. “He is always so positive and just an amazing guy.”
Bermejo said the trails at 10th Mountain have a little bit of everything from “big uphills to screaming turns to flats.”
Conquering all that with just one pole means he relies more on his legs than most of his fellow athletes.
“With one pole I can’t engage my core like a two-armed athlete,” he said. “So I engage my legs a lot more.”
This was Bermejo’s first time in northern Maine, and he said he is pleased with his results.
He finished Sunday’s 15K race in 01:01:45.9, with 12 misses on the range, just over 18 minutes behind the day’s winner, Raleigh Goessling, skiing for Maine Winter Sports Center.
Bermejo posted a time of 53:51.7 in Saturday’s 12.5K pursuit race with 12 missed shots and clocked a 29:56.6 in the 10K sprint race Friday with five missed targets.
“I only decided to come about a week and a half ago,” he said. “We got done with our last competition with the IPC and the coach said I could look for another race or go home and start training, so I decided to come here.”
For their part, officials at 10th Mountain were more than happy to have Bermejo in town.
“I got a call from his coach and talked about here and [Chief of Competition] Jeff [Dubis] and were really excited about the possibility,” event director Nancy Thibodeau said on Sunday.
In 2005, Fort Kent hosted the International Paralympic Winter Games and Thibodeau said organizers have talked a great deal on hosting that event again.
“These athletes and Omar are just so inspirational,” she said.
For his part, Bermejo said he is happy to provide inspiration, but said there was a period of time after the amputation of his arm during which he felt a bit lost.
“There was a point when, with all the pain medication I was taking, I could not even walk,” he said. “I finally told myself I could not live like that, so I began to start walking and then running and then I incorporated skating.”
From there, the athlete quickly moved on to competition sports such as soccer, hockey and, finally, skiing.
“Skiing is my full-time job now,” he said. “It’s pretty sweet.”