17 May 2023
Going blind could turn your world upside down but, for Able Seaman Taryn Dickens, it fuelled her to push harder.
Diagnosed with degenerative cone rod dystrophy in 2019, Able Seaman Dickens was sent spiralling when she was considered not to be a ‘healthy person’.
Fast forward four years, the Canberra local was invited by Snow Australia to represent it in Para Snowsport, where she took part in her first biathlon rookie race at the ParaNordic Games in Utah in March.
Placing second, she described her experience as “humbling, heartbreaking and eye-opening”.
“I’m definitely starting to believe that I’m an athlete,” Able Seaman Dickens said.
“It was a bit confronting but also a fantastic opportunity to be with other blind skiers.”
It was the first time travelling without her assistance dog Gigi, and the unknown environment gave her an understanding of how much her vision had changed.
Living in Canberra and working at Brindabella Park, the able seaman has no trouble navigating the area that she is familiar with.
Arriving in Utah proved to be a difficult adjustment, getting to meetings and dinner in the city.
“Having to rely on someone I didn’t even have time to have a brief with and say ‘this is what I need’ – it was a little heartbreaking,” Able Seaman Dickens said.
Down to under 20 degrees of peripheral vision, a guide skis in front of the athlete with both wearing a headset to communicate on the run.
“She can speak to me and tell me what’s coming up - if we’re turning sharply or how far the hills are,” Able Seaman Dickens said.
“I lose so much of my depth perception in the snow so the headset has worked really well.”
In the shooting component, she used an audio rifle, which used frequencies to aim at the 23mm target.
Headphones delivered a beeping sound with a solid tone once the rifle is on target, using sensors similar to those in cars.
She has recently been able to purchase her own, and is believed to be the first person in Australia to use the audio rifle.
“It was incredible. You’ve got not even a second to pull the trigger,” Able Seaman Dickens said.
“I was still trying to use my eyes at first and was told to just close them – it’s so much easier.”
After five shots, the target resets, with a screen next to the shooter displaying their results.
Vision impaired participants have their guide help them set up their position but aren’t allowed to speak to them during their shoot.
Not long after her return from the games, Able Seaman Dickens was named in the 2023 Invictus Games squad.
“I feel like I’ve never actually served because I’ve never made it on a ship and never got to do my job as an ET [electronics technician],” Able Seaman Dickens said.
“I guess I’ll always feel ripped off.”
Despite this, she believes competing in the games is a way of giving back and will use them as a recovery step.
Able Seaman Dickens will be representing Australia in cycling, powerlifting and rowing.
Still cycling solo, she said she was not ready to move to a tandem bike.
“I’m fighting that one as cycling has always been my sport. I just won’t give up until I have to,” she said.