Eons ago, I hung out with a guy who, as a teenager, lost the use of his legs in a shooting in New York. Wrong time + wrong place + stray bullet = life in a wheelchair. Cursed as I am with a brazen curiosity, I asked more questions than considered polite when we first met. I was horribly patronising in my effusive admiration of how well he got around. He was simply living his life and there I was congratulating him for getting out and about! I cringe when I think of it. Earlier this year, I was introduced to World Shooting Para Sport (WSPS) European Champion Gold Medallist Krisztina Dávid. My admiration this time wasn’t for the fact that she gets out and about in her wheelchair but that she’s an international shooter, winner of Hungary’s first European Paralympic Gold in a sport I know nothing about. We met up last week for a chat.
Kriszta picked the place. When I choose a café, I’m usually concerned with what’s on offer. When I want to get from A to B, I use public transport. For Kriszta, and others who are unable to walk, it’s not so simple. Technology is her friend. Using Google Street View, she checks the kerb to see if she’ll be able to mount the pavement. Narrow paths are difficult to navigate. She checks the width of the door. She checks the inclines. Cellar bars and such are out. As are those with steps. Apps such as Route4U help, too. And while things are improving, much of the city is still inaccessible for so many.
Back in 1981, six-year-old Kriszta walked into a hospital in Szeged to have heart surgery. It would be the last walk she’d take. Complications resulted in paraplegia. Her parents were devasted. Her younger sister didn’t speak for a year. For Kriszta, a free, independent child, her life changed irrevocably. Her parents drove her to school each day and carried her into the classroom, returning to collect her in the afternoon. It would be eight years before she’d get her first wheelchair; eight years of total dependency on others to get around.
She lived what she thought of as a rather boring life. There’s a phrase in Hungarian, Szegeden ül (sitting in Szeged), a tongue-in-cheek reference to those inhabiting the city’s prison. Kriszta used this phrase to describe her life back then in nearby Tápé.
When she turned 17 and got her driver’s licence, her world opened up. With her chair and her car, she could now get around independently. Armed with a BA in Food Engineering and her MA in Economics, Kriszta moved to Budapest at the age of 25. Being able to drive made all the difference.
Taking up sport
My favourite TV ad for Guinness shows guys in wheelchairs playing basketball. Game over, all but one stand up and get out of their chairs. Kriszta shoots pistols, not baskets. As a child, she’d sit in the garden shooting her uncle’s air rifle, aiming at a matchbox. She’d shoot for hours, lost in an almost meditative trance. Later she joined a local shooting club, where 9 mm and .22 calibre pistols became her tools of choice. The more she shot, the better she became. Harnessing the fear, taming the feeling of power that came with holding what, in the wrong hands, could be an instrument of death, took discipline, perseverance, and patience, three traits this woman has in spades.
Shooting is one of the few sports were para-athletes train alongside able-bodied athletes. They use the same ranges, go to the same camps, and in some categories, compete in the same competitions. Both Hungary and Germany hold inclusive competitions where the fight for a place in a final is tough. Standards are high.
Today, Kriszta is a member of BHSE (Budapest Honvéd Sportegyesület) in Budapest. Shooting her .22LR calibre pistol in a national competition in 2009, coach Andrea Zakor approached her suggesting she change to air pistol and consider competing internationally. Zakor gave her a professional air pistol to try out. ‘It was a little like asking someone to take care of a kitten for a while, knowing you might never get it back,’ she joked. She was hooked.
Kriszta went on to take fourth place in the 2010 World Championship, but her ‘sudden’ success wasn’t convincing enough for those then on the Paralympic Committee to consider funding her. She was a relative unknown, albeit a determined one. But on the back of a successful fundraising campaign, Kriszta got herself to the World Cup in Sydney, where she qualified for the London Paralympics in 2012. For Kriszta, the campaign resulted in more than money; it was confirmation that others took her dreams as seriously as she did.
Although she missed a place in the final eight in a shoot-off with a Russian, the disappointment matured her, taking her shooting to a new level. ‘Failing is my learning process,’ she said. ‘It took me a long time to adjust to international competition.’ After looking up to international athletes, it was difficult to come to terms with being one of them and to realise that all of them were simply human.
Four years later, Kriszta took second place in the World Championships, qualifying for a place in Rio in 2016. But in 2015, her heart failed her again. An AV block meant she had to have a pacemaker installed in a process that would take three months. This life-saving operation could well have ended her career as a competitive shooter. Anything that interferes with or regulates the heartbeat is prohibited as it gives the shooter an unfair advantage. Thankfully, her state-of-the-art bradycardia pacemaker allows for variations in beats per minute so she wasn’t disqualified from competition. But with 18 months to go, Kriszta had her work cut out for her. She had changed. Her heartbeat had changed. Everything had changed.
Training to shoot
Kriszta shoots to relax, something I’ve a hard time understanding. I’ve shot the occasional rifle and the odd pistol and I’d have used the words blood-rushing rather than relaxing to describe the experience. The adrenaline, the recoil, the smell of burnt powder. And what of the horrors of mass shootings? But the world of competitive shooting is heavily regulated. No human-shaped targets are used. No clothes with camo print are allowed. No aggressiveness is tolerated.
I watched with some fascination as Kriszta mimed how she preps for a shot. Her headset blocks out ambient noise and amplifies the sounds within her body. Her heartbeat is a metronome of sorts, counting time as she lifts her arm out to the side then drops it in place in front of her. Breathing slows. Eyes focus. Nothing moves until she pulls the trigger. Each shot takes about 25 seconds from start to finish. I was mesmerised. Granted, had we had full sound, it mightn’t have seemed quite so calming.
Kriszta trains in two-hour sessions, sometimes twice a day, an average of five days a week. In each session she fires 120 shots, shooting about 40 000 rounds annually. All of this costs money. Her disability allowance barely keeps her car in petrol. The Paralympic Committee and the BHSE help out. She’s at the point where sponsorship is a consideration. This woman is on a trajectory that will take some stopping.
Upper-body strength is vital. She trains with kettlebells and Spartan fitness regimes and swims twice a week. But for shooting, mental training is, if anything, even more important. Kriszta works with the legendary Ágota Lénárt, head of Sports Psychology for the Hungarian Olympic Team. Lénárt is a national and international champion crossbower, shooter, and cross-country skier, as well as a pilot and a violinist. Together they work to equip Kriszta with the tools she needs to deal with disturbing situations, tools she can use both in and out of competition. ‘At work, I’d stay calm in emergencies. People thought I didn’t care. But I was focusing on the problem,’ she explained.
Competing for gold
Competing in air pistol (10 m), free pistol (50 m), and sports pistol (25 m), Kriszta fires 60 shots in 75 or 90 minutes, depending on the category. In competition, she focuses on her technique, humming to herself to drown out the commentator. She doesn’t want or need to know where she’s ranking. She competes against herself. She told me that she’d won her gold medal in Belgrade last year before she ever hit the range in December. ‘I competed in my head for weeks in advance.’ I suspect there’s very little this woman couldn’t do if she set her mind to it.
When I asked what kept her sane and motivated in the years after her first heart surgery, she didn’t have to think for very long. ‘There was always someone around when I was feeling lost, someone to give me a little help.’ When I asked how long she planned to keep shooting, she mentioned Australian Paralympian Libby Kosmala who at 74 was the oldest athlete competing at the games in Rio. Right now, though, Kriszta’s focus is on the Tokyo games in 2020. When I asked what her greatest insight has been from competitive sport she said ‘When you give someone the recipe to achieve a good result, it’s not like sharing a secret. If they don’t have the right sensors to understand what’s needed, it won’t work.’
Who’d have thought that by loaning her his gun, her uncle would ignite a passion that would earn Kriszta international acclaim. Who’d have thought that in asking her to address a group of 150 teenagers after the Rio games, Lénárt would start her down the road to studying sports psychology. And who’d have thought that a chance meeting in a Budapest pub would have been so inspirational. It did this jaded heart good to spend time with someone so focused, so determined to be the best that they can be. I really hope the book inside her gets to print.
Krisztina Dávid is a remarkable woman. With a wicked sense of humour and a refreshingly honest view of the world, she lives her life as if there’s no tomorrow, taking nothing for granted. When I asked how she’d describe herself in a soundbite, she replied with a laugh: I’m a European Champion living on a battery. Enough said.
First published in the Budapest Times 10 May 2019