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A Look Back: Successful American Olympic Shooters


In April 1896, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic games after a 1,500-year hiatus. Athletes from 12 countries competed in nine sports and 43 events. Coubertin was a pistol shooting champion and decided to include two rifle events and three pistols events. John B. Paine and Sumner Paine, the sons of an American Civil War general, dominated the pistol events. John won gold in the 25-meter military pistol event, and his brother placed second. Sumner won gold in the 30-meter free pistol event. Since the 1896 Olympics, U.S. athletes have competed in Olympic shooting events.

Olympic shooting events have come a long way since the Paine brothers won their gold medals in Athens in 1896. Seven countries competed in five shooting events in 1896; 120 years later, 97 nations competed in 15. Trapshooting was introduced to the Olympics in 1900, and skeet shooting was added in 1968. American James R. “Jay” Graham was the first to win gold in trapshooting in 1912. Likewise, Matthew Dryke was the first American to win gold in skeet shooting in 1984. The U.S. went without a champion for more than two decades in skeet shooting until Vincent Hancock’s victory in 2008. He won gold again in 2012.

The Secret to Success?

Olympic shooters have been asked since they began competing what it takes to be successful. “There is no secret,” two-time Olympic shooting gold medalist Gary L. Anderson stated in September 1965. “It’s just practice and hard work. Anybody could do it if he [or she] really puts his [or her] mind to it.” As a teenager, Anderson stumbled upon a magazine article on Russian Anatoli Bogdanov, the 1952 Olympic champion in the 300-meter free rifle event. He spent his high school years studying Bogdanov’s techniques.

During his senior year, Anderson “decided that if I was ever going to do anything, I’d better get busy.” He pinned bullseyes on his bedroom wall and began to practice dry-firing because he couldn’t afford ammo. “I’d work at it five or six hours an evening when everybody was watching television,” he recalled. “I kept at it all through the winter and early summer.” Anderson continued to perfect his marksmanship. He eventually won gold in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics in the 300-meter rifle event.

“Training is not fun. Fun is winning,” Lones W. Wigger Jr., two-time gold shooting medalist (1964 and 1972), stated in an interview. “But if you’re going to win you have to train. You have to prepare.” This same philosophy resonates with Vincent Hancock, even though he and Wigger competed three decades apart. Hancock practices his competitive shooting on a daily basis, which allowed him to reach his level of proficiency. “I train from three to six hours every day to get to a point that I am,” Hancock stated. He also trains five to seven days a week. Every range he competes on is different. Therefore, Hancock practices in different conditions and has a training plan ready before each competition. This allows him to be prepared to face whatever obstacles he may encounter.

Train Like an Olympian

As you may have already noticed, there are parallels between an Olympian shooter and an everyday armed citizen. Civilians can’t train for five to six hours a day and seven days a week like an Olympian. But there are ways to carve out time each day, even for a few moments, and train at home or on the range. Tim Kennedy has stated on numerous occasions that he strives to improve his skills fractions of a percent. We should each have that same goal.

Wigger wasn’t lying when he said training isn’t fun. But it is necessary. And there are ways to make it engaging. While you may not be competing for medals like Olympic shooters, you are competing for something even greater: your life and the lives of your loved ones. We need to do anything that gives us a slight edge over an adversary. There’s no secret to it. It’s just dedication and willingness to improve.

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