Al Pacino may have embedded the importance of inches into the sporting psyche with that famous, and overblown, speech in the film Any Given Sunday but Sean Baldwin must scoff at such generous measurements of length.
When the 44-year old company quartermaster sergeant raises his rifle for the 10m air rifle standing event at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich some time after 9am today he will do so in the knowledge that the margin for error is infinitesimal.
“I went to my first [Paralympic] competition last year in Spain and got my qualification for London there,” he explains. “Out of 600, I shot a 598 and I didn’t make the final. And I missed the 10 by a quarter of a millimetre. Twice. That’s how fine it was.
“That is my strong event but I am not the only one who can do that. There are 20 guys out there that can shoot a 600 on any given day — but not every day. I could shoot it today but, unfortunately, I could shoot a 599 or a 598 either.”
Shooting may not strike you as an endurance sport but, make no mistake, it is. Baldwin will compete in four events over a six-day period in south-east London with the shortest session lasting 35 minutes and the longest encompassing over three hours next Wednesday morning.
Key to it all is water. One of the first senses to suffer with the onset of dehydration is eyesight which, it goes without saying, doesn’t do you any favours when the target is anywhere between 10 and 50m away and no greater than a millimetre or centimetre across.
Still, he’s well used to it now. Baldwin discovered an aptitude for marksmanship when he first joined the army but blasting life-sized targets with assault rifles is one thing, what he is doing this week is on a whole different level again.
His interest was first piqued when he walked into an army gymnasium in 2003 and watched Captain Ray Kane give a demonstration on target rifle shooting and it rekindled months later when he saw the same rifle on display in a military store.
A phone call to Capt Kane got him started but he was thwarted from appearing in his first competition, in Holland, when the army sent him to Liberia, where a road accident would cost him a leg and colleague Derek Mooney his life.
Baldwin lay on a hospital bed listening to a description of the litany of injuries that encompassed his entire body but one of his first thoughts was that he would still be able to shoot and, within two years, he was doing just that for the military team.
“I got back into it fairly quickly but there was no Paralympic shooting in Ireland so I got back into the able-bodied but only in the military side of it,” he explained. “I have numerous gold, silver and bronze national medals from Irish competitions.
“Then a friend of mine suggested the Paralympics but the problem was that we had no Paralympic body and you need that before you can compete. In fairness, Paralympics Ireland took me on under their wing.”
Disability shooting is, in almost every way, indistinguishable from the able-bodied version. A world record in the Paralympics would trump one set in the Olympics, for example. The only difference from military events is that he will be allowed use a bench or sit down.
The target itself will still be a dot, at best.
“If it’s not a 10 then forget about it,” he says. “Within another minute you start again so you get your breathing, relax and then it’s total focus. If all goes well then it is a 10 every time but the smallest movement, just one millimetre out, and you miss your target.”
Inches? Yeah, whatever, Al.
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