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Continued: Dennis Anderson: U.S. shooters gunning for gold

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 11, 2012 - 6:53 AM

One is a college student, another an aerospace engineer. A third meditates "because it makes you really aware what's coming into your head." A fourth was recruited by the Army out of a small college for his world-class sharpshooting skills.

Each is a member of the U.S. Olympic rifle team that arrived without fanfare in the Twin Cities this week to practice at the Minneapolis Rifle Club, whose northwest metro range mimics what the shooters might face later this month in London.

Clad in heavy shooting pants and jackets, special shoes and protective eyewear, and shouldering .22 rimfire rifles capable of sharpening pencil points at 50 meters, the marksmen honed targeting skills that rank them among the best in the world.

"Two members of our current eight member team [four others trained elsewhere this week] were on the very strong team we had in 2008 in Beijing," said coach Dave Johnson of Colorado Springs, himself a former Olympian. "I'm very confident we will do well in London."

Physically and mentally demanding, with some matches lasting three hours, competitive rifle shooting is divided into men's and women's events, and is little understood outside its relatively small circle of participants, coaches and supporters.

Though shooting in some form has been part of most Olympics since 1896, it unfolds in the shadows of the Summer Games' more visible competitions that require, for example, running, jumping and trapeze wizardry.

And unlike those sports, rifle shooting rewards competitors who almost literally can still their hearts -- while rigidly aiming 15-pound rifles at electronic targets that gauge accuracy at otherwise imperceptible gradations.

"I started shooting when I was 11," said Amanda Furrer, 21, of Spokane, Wash. "For me this is almost entirely a mental game. You have to be 100 percent confident going into a match. I tell myself, 'I want this. I need this. I'm going to do it.' "

An Ohio State senior studying finance, Furrer attends college on a rifle shooting scholarship, as did her teammates and her coach. She lifts weights three days a week, alternating the regimen with cardio workouts.

Her future beyond college, she said, is uncertain.

"My dad was in the military, and my brother was a [Army] Ranger medic," she said. "I've thought about joining the Army to shoot for them. If I do, I'd like to be a sniper, actually."

Before Furrer was born, Sgt. First Class Eric Uptagrafft, 46, was sending bullets downrange competitively. A member of the elite Army Marksmanship Unit, he competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta in the men's 50-meter prone event, consisting of 60 shots taken while lying down over 75 minutes.

In that time, winds can increase, decrease and change direction, requiring shooters to make infinitesimal adjustments to their gun sights, their aim or both.

Aiding them are small, individually assigned TV-like monitors that display where their shots hit.

"If there's not much wind, I can usually fire my 60 shots in 30 to 40 minutes," said Uptagrafft, who's served in the military for 29 years. "If it's windy and there are constant adjustments, I might shoot right up until the last minute or two. When that happens, you get physically worn out."

In addition to prone, men compete in "three-position," consisting of prone, standing and kneeling. Women shoot only the latter.

Headquartered at Fort Benning, Ga., the Army Marksmanship Unit was founded in 1956 at the direction of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The unit -- battalion -- serves as proving ground and showcase for the Army's top guns, who in turn train other soldiers, while also fielding a select squad that travels the world to compete in rifle, shotgun and pistol matches.

"That's the way it is now," Uptagrafft said. "But President Eisenhower's goal initially was to beat the Soviets in rifle shooting. They had good shooters, and he wanted to beat them. By 1964, we were doing that fairly consistently."

Trained as an aerospace engineer, Uptagrafft is unique among competitive rifle shooters, most of whom prefer Anschutz firearms.

"I couldn't find a rifle that shot well for me," he said. "So I put my engineering to work and built my own."

The mind game

Jamie Gray, 28, has traveled the world with a gun in her hand. She will be a hot U.S. medals prospect in London who in Beijing finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in women's air rifle and three-position.

A high school varsity softball, basketball and soccer player, she stays in shape doing "a lot of cardio and a lot of core strengthening."

"I used to practice yoga," she said. "but now I practice mindfulness meditation about 20 minutes a day."

A civilian who nonetheless trains at Fort Benning, she also coaches a nearby Columbus, Ga., college rifle shooting team. She's a graduate of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where she shot rifles on scholarship, and will compete in London in three-position and air rifle.

"I'm probably one of the most competitive people you'll ever meet," Gray said. "That and developing self-discipline are what drive me. You can't let anything else affect you while you shoot, and you really have to be disciplined to develop that."

Clad in full competitive regalia, including sweater and cardboard-like outerwear, Gray on a very hot Tuesday morning nonetheless appeared cool as she braced herself in preparation for squeezing off one shot -- and another and another.

"We try to remain as still as possible when we shoot," she said. "Our clothes help with the stability. They also dampen our heartbeats. Our shooting pants in particular give lower back support and help prevent injuries."

Teammate Army Staff Sgt. Mike McPhail didn't compete in a rifle match until he was about 14 years old, when a family friend introduced him to the sport.

"Now I'm one of the lucky ones who can say I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing," said McPhail, 30, who grew up in the small southwestern Wisconsin town of Darlington.

Also part of the Army Marksmanship Unit, McPhail bested about 70 shooters at the Olympic tryouts to earn a shot in men's prone on the London team.

"In men's prone, a score of 600 is the highest possible," he said. "If it's not windy in London, a couple of shooters probably will finish with 599s." (Ties in finals matches are broken by shoot-offs.)

McPhail's alma mater, Wisconsin-Oshkosh, is a Division III school that regularly competes against Division I schools in rifle shooting. Liking what they saw in McPhail as a collegian, Army shooting coaches asked him to sign up after graduation.

A soldier now for eight years, McPhail on Tuesday settled easily into practice at the Minneapolis Rifle Club.

"It's a good facility," he said, "The wind changes rapidly here, just like in London."

Added Johnson, the coach:

"Before arriving in London, we will have shot in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Germany, Denmark and here, in Minneapolis. Our intent is to put our shooters in places where conditions vary and where they have to figure out how to adapt in a hurry.

"We're some of the strongest shooters in the world in windy conditions. Constant adjustments are necessary when it's windy, and shooters who can make those adjustments are the ones who will win."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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