Shooting for Gold

A guide to the shooters and events that could bring medals to Team USA

It’s that once-every-four-years time again, when the summer television schedule is dominated by impossibly fit men and women, apparently from another planet, routinely doing the impossible. The Summer Games are guaranteed to captivate couch potatoes everywhere. And hard though it is to believe, given the usual absence of television coverage, shooting is one of the most popular events worldwide.

Of course, the first Olympic Games may have begun as a footrace to honor the Greek god Zeus, but leave it to us brash Americans to set the pace when firearms were added to the mix. The date was 1896, and the location was Athens, site of the first modern-day Olympics. There was no American team per se, but the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) had received an invitation to participate. And participate it did, with a group of 13 “self-appointed, haphazardly financed young men from Harvard and Princeton universities,” according to Olympic history records.

Among them was marksman John Paine, who stopped off in Paris to draft his brother Sumner into the bizarre BAA crusade. Shooting was to be a part of the new Olympics; however, there were no international standards or published details of the events-not even a description of the targets. The brothers Paine decided to err on the side of caution, loading up their trunk with two Colt New Model Army .45s, two S&W; Russian revolvers, a Stevens .22 target pistol, a Wurfflien .22 single-shot gallery pistol, a couple of pocket pistols and a total of 3,500 rounds of ammunition for the 96 shots they’d each take in Athens.

On the day of the 25-meter pistol competition, the two brothers arrived at what Sumner called “the prettiest shooting house in the world, 200 feet long built entirely of snow-white marble.” The brothers triumphed, despite their .22 target pistols having been disqualified by the Greek Olympic committee on the grounds that the .22 was “not a usual caliber,” the only rule for Olympic pistols. Using the big Army Colts, the brothers, with John in the lead, scored a one-two victory, even though they had to hold the Colts (sighted in at 50 yards) over the target. The next day John sat out, and Sumner took first place in the 30-meter revolver competition with the S&W; Russian. They both sat out the third pistol competition (25-meter dueling pistol) to give someone else a chance to win.

For their victory the men each received an olive branch from Altis, the sacred groves of Olympia, the first home of the Olympics, and a silver medal (gold being considered “crass”) for first and a bronze medal for second. They also received prizes donated by local merchants, including a case of local wine and a dozen silk ties from an Athens department store.

Olympic Shooting Today
Shooting has been integral to the modern Games ever since, and, America excluded, the shooting events have remained among the most popular with viewers. Over the years, Americans have won 44 gold medals (the crassness apparently wore off), 25 silver and 30 bronze. Two shooters share the U.S. record with swimmer Mark Spitz for most medals won in a single Olympics. They are Willis Lee and Lloyd Spooner, who each won seven medals in rifle competition at the 1920 Games.

This year, for the first time since the Paines were the toast of the Games, the Olympics return to Athens, Greece. There will be a total of 17 shooting events contested by 390 athletes. (And although Olympic television provider NBC has promised 24-hour coverage and TV spots for every single sport, plan to stay up late if you want to see any of the shooting.)

[pagebreak] This year, though, marks something of a watershed for USA Shooting, the national governing body for Olympic shooting in the United States. After years of a dearth of medals, USA Shooting is heading into the 2004 Summer Games with not only its most powerful array of shooters in a couple of decades, but much greer support from the shooting community as well.

“Athens is going to be a lot of fun,” says USA Shooting executive director Robert Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot of athletes performing at a world-class level, and that makes us optimistic. It’s interesting, too, because like the other smaller Olympic sports, we’ve changed our operating philosophy to be more performance-based. Athens will be the first test of our new focus.”

That’s a very good thing, because our last really good year at the Games was 1984, when the U.S. scored three gold, one silver and two bronze medals…out of a potential 51-medal haul. There were some bright lights: Kim Rhode’s 1996 gold and 2000 bronze in double trap; Nancy Johnson’s first gold of the new century in air rifle and Launi Meili’s 1992 gold in three-position rifle. But on the whole, the country with the most guns has stumbled in producing the best shooters.

Stranger still for a country that leads the world in participation in the handgun shooting sports, we have to go all the way back to 1960 to see an American gold medal in any of the handgun disciplines (Bill McMillan, rapid-fire pistol). The last American handgun medal of any metal was current handgun national coach Erich Buljung’s silver for men’s air pistol in 1988. In 2004, we won’t even be competing in every pistol event.

Off the record, people close to the U.S. shooting effort point to the same problems that have plagued the other “lesser” Olympic sports. While the Olympics is very huge and very rich, on a national level the money and the sponsorship dollars go to the flashier, more visible “name” sports. Think 13-year-old female gymnasts, million-dollar basketball players or even track-and-field superstars.

Of course, there’s the gorilla in the closet-the inescapable fact that Olympic shooting is still shooting, like with guns.

“Good grief, yes!” says Mitchell. “We have challenges that none of the other Olympic sports have. The fact that we are a shooting sport, even at the Olympic level, has implications in every single area. For example, several major insurance companies won’t even provide bids for our corporate insurance, even though we can prove that sport shooting is one of the safest sports in the world. What’s more frustrating, though, is our limitations with sponsors. The big corporations typically shy away from shooting.”

Additionally, the persistent media bias against guns and shooting makes it extremely hard for even successful shooting athletes to have the exposure of, say, mountain-biking competitors, even though based on numbers of participants (from the National Shooting Sports Foundation), many more people participate in the shooting sports than in mountain biking.

So how do we handicap these Summer Games? Well, it’s a little hard to say, since, as we went to press, not all of the Olympic team members had been chosen. For certain, though, we will not be competing in free pistol, rapid-fire pistol or women’s air pistol.

[pagebreak] Stars to Watch
The first is Kim Rhode, who at the ripe old age of 25 will be swinging for the wall. Her signature event, women’s double trap, with two clay pigeons smoking out at 50 mph, is scheduled to be eliminated from the Olympics after the Athens Games, so she’s going to want to put the final exclamation point on a sport she’s dominated. She’s been shooting extremely well, taking a gold in 2003 at the Pan Am Games and the World Cup as well as snagging the women’s double-trap national championship.

Also, watch trap and double-trap specialist Lance Bade, the 33-year-old double Olympian (with a bronze in trap from 1996). Lance has already nailed his spot in Athens. This looks like his year for the center spot on the podium, and he knows it. “I’m feeling really comfortable with how I’m shooting right now,” Bade says.

One of the biggest threats Lance faces is from his teammate, Sergeant First Class Brett Erickson of the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU). Another two-time Olympian, Brett swept through the qualifying matches.

On the skeet side of things, AMU member Todd Graves has a good shot at repeating or bettering his 2000 bronze, if he can find another good luck charm like the stuffed koala bear given to him by an Australian woman in Sydney just before his run of 50 clay pigeons.

Also keep your eye on the “young guns” pistol combo of John Bickar and Jason Turner. Bickar was the 2002 national champion in air, standard, centerfire and rapid-fire pistol and is the national record-holder in rapid-fire pistol. Turner dominated air and free pistol in 2003. Women’s sport pistol remains a toss-up, with two-time Olympian Beki Snyder and 2000 Olympian Janine Bowman confronting a challenge from newcomer Melissa McConnell.

Rifle whiz Jason Parker of the AMU, who set a new world record in men’s air rifle in mid-2003, is a good bet to see some podium time for either the air-rifle or three-position rifle event. Another face to watch in rifle is 23-year-old Matt Emmons of Alaska, whose come-from-behind victory at the 2002 World Championships in 50-meter prone put him on the map.

With health problems keeping 2000 gold medalist Nancy Johnson out of the running in 10-meter air rifle, the women’s air rifle and three-position rifle field is wide open. Contenders here include Jaimie Beyerle (gold medalist, 2003 World Cup), Sarah Blakeslee (silver medalist, 2003 Pan-Am Games), Emily Caruso and 2000 Olympian Melissa Mulloy.

If somebody held a gun to my head and asked, I’d have to say that we’re on track for five or six medals-Kim Rhode, Lance Bade, Jason Parker, Todd Graves and women’s air rifle…with fingers crossed on men’s air pistol. If we don’t come away with at least four medals, I wouldn’t want to be standing around the Olympic range in Colorado Springs. Especially if I was a coach.

Finally, there’s one “lesson” from those first Athens Games in 1896 that we won’t be using in 2004: Other shooting competitors noticed that on the first day, the Paine brothers paused to take a little sip of whiskey from their pocket flasks when the tension was running high. By the second day, many of the assembled marksmen had their own pocket flasks… [pagebreak]

Here’s the absolute truth-an afternoon on the Olympic campus in Colorado Springs is a humbling experience, and not just because you’re in the Land of Four Percent Body Fat.

Spending time with any Olympic athlete makes you painfully aware of what those athletes have given up for a chance at a gold medal. Lives are put on hold; academics and careers stall; opportunities for income are lost; and spouses, parents and friends all wait while the athlete pursues that most elusive of goals: one moment oLance faces is from his teammate, Sergeant First Class Brett Erickson of the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU). Another two-time Olympian, Brett swept through the qualifying matches.

On the skeet side of things, AMU member Todd Graves has a good shot at repeating or bettering his 2000 bronze, if he can find another good luck charm like the stuffed koala bear given to him by an Australian woman in Sydney just before his run of 50 clay pigeons.

Also keep your eye on the “young guns” pistol combo of John Bickar and Jason Turner. Bickar was the 2002 national champion in air, standard, centerfire and rapid-fire pistol and is the national record-holder in rapid-fire pistol. Turner dominated air and free pistol in 2003. Women’s sport pistol remains a toss-up, with two-time Olympian Beki Snyder and 2000 Olympian Janine Bowman confronting a challenge from newcomer Melissa McConnell.

Rifle whiz Jason Parker of the AMU, who set a new world record in men’s air rifle in mid-2003, is a good bet to see some podium time for either the air-rifle or three-position rifle event. Another face to watch in rifle is 23-year-old Matt Emmons of Alaska, whose come-from-behind victory at the 2002 World Championships in 50-meter prone put him on the map.

With health problems keeping 2000 gold medalist Nancy Johnson out of the running in 10-meter air rifle, the women’s air rifle and three-position rifle field is wide open. Contenders here include Jaimie Beyerle (gold medalist, 2003 World Cup), Sarah Blakeslee (silver medalist, 2003 Pan-Am Games), Emily Caruso and 2000 Olympian Melissa Mulloy.

If somebody held a gun to my head and asked, I’d have to say that we’re on track for five or six medals-Kim Rhode, Lance Bade, Jason Parker, Todd Graves and women’s air rifle…with fingers crossed on men’s air pistol. If we don’t come away with at least four medals, I wouldn’t want to be standing around the Olympic range in Colorado Springs. Especially if I was a coach.

Finally, there’s one “lesson” from those first Athens Games in 1896 that we won’t be using in 2004: Other shooting competitors noticed that on the first day, the Paine brothers paused to take a little sip of whiskey from their pocket flasks when the tension was running high. By the second day, many of the assembled marksmen had their own pocket flasks… [pagebreak]

Here’s the absolute truth-an afternoon on the Olympic campus in Colorado Springs is a humbling experience, and not just because you’re in the Land of Four Percent Body Fat.

Spending time with any Olympic athlete makes you painfully aware of what those athletes have given up for a chance at a gold medal. Lives are put on hold; academics and careers stall; opportunities for income are lost; and spouses, parents and friends all wait while the athlete pursues that most elusive of goals: one moment o