LAKEWOOD — McKenna Dahl is female, she is young and she is in a wheelchair. And for all those reasons she probably shouldn’t be a terrific sharpshooter.
Or at least that’s what some of her rivals seem to think.
The rivals she usually beats, that is.
Dahl, a 14-year-old freshman
at Lakewood High School, took up the shooting sport of 10-meter air rifle less than two years ago and began competing in top national events just last year. Although still a relative novice, she has emerged as one of the nation’s most promising disabled shooters and a top contender for spots on upcoming United States Paralympic teams.
“I can’ believe how far she’s already taken it,” said Rob Dahl, her father. “She’s gotten so far, so fast, and it’s been amazing. It’s blown me away.”
At one of her recent events, she competed against a group of Junior ROTC shooters, all boys. Being friendly and maybe curious about the girl in the wheelchair, they came over to chat.
“But when they found out shed beaten every one of them they were speechless,” she said, smiling at the memory. “They wouldn’t tell me their scores because they were so shocked.”
She was born with amyoplasia arthrogryposis, a condition in which a newborn child lacks muscle and suffers from joint deformity. She had clubbed hands and feet at birth that operations helped correct, but surgeries can only do so much. They cannot, for example, restore missing muscle.
Today she walks haltingly, and at times needs a walker or a wheelchair. She has good use of her right hand, but very little use of her left hand, and many basic daily tasks climbing stairs, for instance, are challenges.
Yet despite her disability, she is a remarkably bright, ambitious and competitive girl. She sports a 3.8 grade point average, loves math, is considering a career in veterinary medicine, and enjoys swimming, wheelchair basketball and Miracle League baseball for kids with disabilities.
But her best sport, no question, is shooting.
She got started in the summer of 2009 while attending Camp Access, a summer camp for kids with disabilities at Flowing Lake County Park outside Snohomish. Right from the start she showed a special skill, and before long she was beating veteran shooters of all ages, men and women.
“Her early prowess was surprising,” she said, “because I didn’t really expect I’d beat some of the guys who’d been shooting (a long time).” But, she added, “it was awesome.”
Because she cannot hold a rifle due to a lack of strength and flexibility in her left wrist, she shoots from her wheelchair with her gun propped on a stand on a table in front of her. If she is shooting from a standing position, she does not put her elbows on the table. From a kneeling position, she is allowed to put one elbow on the table. And from a prone position, she can put both elbows on the table.
Her rifle uses a canister of compressed air to fire .177-caliber pellets at targets 10 meters away. She gets 10 points for a bulls-eye, which is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The targets also have larger surrounding circles worth decreasing points.
And it doesn’t take much to miss the bulls-eye. “Something as small as my heartbeat can change the score from a perfect 10 to a 7 or 8,” she said.
In the last three months, she has been to two events at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. She sometimes shoots against able-bodied shooters, but in events sanctioned by USA Shooting she competes against others with disabilities.
Her goal is to represent the United States at the Paralympics, which are held every four years, and within weeks following and at the same venues as the Olympic Games. She hopes, for instance, to be on the U.S. Paralympic team in London in 2012 and in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“It would be unbelievable and it would mean the world,” her father said. “We’ve tried to get her to believe (in success) since before she could talk. We’ve always told her, The world is available and you can do all of it. You can do anything.”
McKenna Dahl has taken that message to heart. Despite her physical limitations, she sees a world around her without boundaries.
“I really don’t think there’s anything I can’t do,” she said.
And if someone might doubt, no problem. Because, she said, “my favorite thing to do is prove people wrong.”