U.S. Shooter Matt Emmons Takes Rifle Bronze

Aug 6, 2012
Originally published on August 6, 2012 6:44 pm
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In the past two Olympics, American shooter Matt Emmons has led his rifle event going into the final shot, and then things fall apart. Today in London, the shooting events concluded and Emmons got another opportunity at victory. NPR's Mike Pesca has this story on what happened as Emmons tried to conquer his sport and his nerves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Attention, three, two, one, start.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Matt Emmons stood staring at his target. This was the final shot of competition, possibly Emmons' final shot after three Olympic games, which had already netted him a gold and a silver medal in other rifle events. But, in the three position event, the final shot for Matt Emmons has been harrowing.

In Athens, Emmons fired at the wrong target and tumbled out of medal contention. In Beijing, he was leading going into the last shot and pulled the trigger at the wrong time, earning a horrific score, which killed his medal chances.

These experiences, Emmons admitted afterward, had not completely faded away.

MATT EMMONS: I did everything I knew how to do to try to calm my body down and, really, on the last shot, I was just shaking so much and I said, OK, Matt.

PESCA: OK, Matt. Breathe. OK, Matt. Visualize. OK, Matt. Go through all the exercises you and your psychologist have worked on these last four years. Even that frank admission of nerves is somewhat taboo in the culture of sports. In most sports, admitting to nervousness is seen as admitting weakness, but the shooting sports are different. Shooting is almost anti-kinetic. The spectator who took a swig from his Olympics-approved water bottle as Emmons stood ready to fire, the journalist who scribbled a sentence in his notepad - they both moved their bodies much more than Emmons would.

When Emmons was labeled a choker by Time magazine or mocked in the sports media, those words didn't come from other shooters, says Katerina Emmons, Matt's wife, and a two-time shooting medalist for the Czech Republic.

KATERINA EMMONS: None of the shooters - the shooters were great. All of them know how hard it is to overcome fears because we all have them, so all of them appreciated Matt for who he is and there was huge support for him.

PESCA: The other competitors know that controlling adrenaline is a key part of the game. An adrenaline-filled running back may feed off his emotions to bowl over a tackler. That's not how it works with shooting, says Matt.

EMMONS: I honestly wish - there are so many times I wish I was in another sport where I could use those nerves to your advantage, like, you know, when I've been in ski races, if I was nervous, I would always race really well because it brought out the best in me. It brought out that little extra bit of endurance or speed or whatever you might want to get you through that I never was able to do in training.

PESCA: Matt was participating in this sport in this moment. Gold was out of reach. Emmons' friend, the Italian, Nicola Campriani, was about to set an Olympics record, but another good shot and silver would belong to Matt. Afterwards, here's how Emmons describes his mindset.

EMMONS: It was a little bit more challenging today than I thought it was going to be. I guess, really, just the magnitude of the situation kind of hit me, which is fine. I still worked with it pretty well, but even in the final, though, you know, I was trying everything I could on the last couple shot to really just calm myself down and take the best shot that I could and it was tough.

PESCA: Emmons shot his lowest score of the round, by far. The BBC announcer intoned, Emmons has failed again, but he still takes bronze. Emmons hunched over to check his score in the target. He grimaced, but as soon as he straightened up, he smiled. He walked over to his friend, Campriani, and smiled. He smiled through the medal ceremony. He smiled as he kissed his wife and he smiled as he did his interviews.

His teammates said they were thrilled for Matt. Matt said he was thrilled on the podium and the winners said that no one outside the sport could realize what an inspiration Emmons was to all the other athletes and that's when Emmons began to cry.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.