Dennis Anderson: U.S. shooters gunning for gold

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

Four shooters hoping -- no, planning -- to win Olympic medals used a Twin Cities range to train this week.

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

  • related content

  • Video: USA's Olympic shooters practice in Elk River

    Thursday July 26, 2012

    The U.S. Olympic Shooting Team practiced at a 50-meter range in Elk River to prepare for the London Olympics....

  • Photo gallery: Olympic shooting team

    Friday July 6, 2012

    Members of the U.S. Olympic shooting team were in Minnesota this week preparing for the London games.

  • Reusse: Family made De La Hoya golden

    Saturday July 7, 2012

    Before he became one of the biggest names in boxing, Oscar De La Hoya was a teen out of East L.A. surrounded by his supportive relatives.

  • Jamie Gray, a member of the U.S. Olympic rifle team, was among four team members practicing this week at the Minneapolis Rifle Club.

  • U.S. OLYMPIC RIFLE TEAM VISITS TWIN CITIES

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Baltimore 2 FINAL
Detroit 15
NY Yankees 5 FINAL
Philadelphia 5
Northeastern 1 FINAL
Boston 2
Miami-Fla 1 FINAL
Miami 7
Pittsburgh 8 FINAL
Toronto 7
San Francisco 4 FINAL
Oakland 9
Cleveland 0 FINAL
Cincinnati 10
Boston College 0 FINAL
Boston 1
Arizona State 0 Bottom 8th Inning
Arizona 3
Boston 18 2nd Qtr 10:03
Cleveland 36
LA Lakers 30 2nd Qtr 9:31
Charlotte 32
Sacramento 27 1st Qtr 1:39
New York 19
Houston 6:30 PM
Atlanta
Utah 7:00 PM
Memphis
Washington 7:00 PM
Chicago
Milwaukee 8:00 PM
Denver
Nashville 0 1st Prd 2:14
New Jersey 2
Calgary 1 1st Prd 2:25
Philadelphia 0
Washington 2 1st Prd 2:09
Columbus 0
Buffalo 6:30 PM
Tampa Bay
Toronto 0 1st Prd 19:14
Florida 0
Ottawa 7:00 PM
Minnesota
NY Islanders 7:30 PM
Dallas
Anaheim 8:00 PM
Arizona
Los Angeles 8:30 PM
Edmonton
San Jose 9:00 PM
Vancouver
Ole Miss 24 1st Half 2:50
Alabama 27
Eastern Mich 26 1st Half 4:06
Ball State 18
Kent State 24 1st Half 6:10
Bowling Green 25
Ohio 25 1st Half 3:27
Buffalo 34
Georgetown 25 1st Half 3:29
Butler 20
Toledo 30 1st Half 3:23
Central Mich 25
Rhode Island 23 1st Half 5:00
Dayton 26
Youngstown St 29 1st Half 4:48
Detroit 24
North Carolina 34 1st Half 3:52
Georgia Tech 17
Loyola-Maryland 9 1st Half 5:50
Holy Cross 28
Iowa 21 1st Half 7:22
Indiana 20
Akron 19 1st Half 6:10
Miami-Ohio 17
Army 21 1st Half 5:05
Navy 18
Maryland 27 1st Half 4:09
Rutgers 20
Kennesaw St 10 1st Half 6:24
USC Upstate 27
Jacksonville 22 1st Half 5:38
Fla Gulf Coast 24
Lipscomb 21 1st Half 5:17
Northern Ky 21
Stetson 6 1st Half 17:05
North Florida 3
Wright State 7:00 PM
Ill-Chicago
Western Mich 7:00 PM
Northern Ill
Nebraska Omaha 7:00 PM
North Dakota
Houston Baptist 7:00 PM
Abilene Christian
NC State 8:00 PM
Clemson
Texas A&M 8:00 PM
Florida
Kentucky 8:00 PM
Georgia
West Virginia 8:00 PM
Kansas
Auburn 8:00 PM
Missouri
Michigan 8:00 PM
Northwestern
Villanova 8:15 PM
Creighton
Longwood 55 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 63
Charleston Southern 39 FINAL
Presbyterian 47
Coastal Carolina 48 2nd Half 3:53
UNC-Asheville 55
NJIT 18 1st Half 3:50
UMass Lowell 22
West Virginia 7:00 PM
Kansas State
TCU 7:00 PM
Texas
Fresno State 8:00 PM
Air Force
San Jose St 8:00 PM
Boise State
Nevada 8:00 PM
Colorado State
UNLV 8:00 PM
San Diego State
Wyoming 8:00 PM
Utah State
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close