In his intensely researched novels about snipers, the author Stephen Hunter's characters speak of equipoise, of the slowed heart rate and breathing, the anchored stillness, as the shooter smoothly, almost unconsciously pulls the trigger.
Patrick Sunderman offers a real-world, first-hand view of what fills the mind of a shooter when the world is reduced to a distant bull's eye.
"I'm not trying to blank out all thoughts,'' he said. "I'm just trying to have the right ones. I have a saying: 'This shot. This shot …' I try to keep myself in the present. There are 40 shots in each position and 120 total, but the only shot that I have any control over is the current shot.
"So in my head, I'm usually saying, 'This shot,' as I'm breathing and looking over the sights.''
Sunderman grew up in Farmington and learned to shoot with an air rifle at his family's cabin in Cambridge. At the Olympics, he is representing the United States, Minnesota, the University of West Virginia, the Army, American Legion Post 435 and his family in the men's 50-meter rifle three positions competition, which begins Sunday night Minnesota time.
He'll take 120 shots, 40 each while kneeling, prone and standing. He won't necessarily be thinking about the long road to Tokyo, or his sports psychology degree, but both may have helped him qualify for the Olympics in an event that he didn't know existed when he first picked up that air rifle.
At age 4, he was shooting an air rifle at the cabin, which eventually led to joining the American Legion air rifle program. He competed in a variety of sports at Farmington High — baseball, swimming, cross country — and kept on shooting.
"I decided shooting was the route for me once I discovered there were college scholarships available," Sunderman said. "I thought, 'I'm going to devote more time to this.' And I did.''
Toward the end of his senior year at Farmington, West Virginia rifle coach Jon Hammond contacted him about going to the university. Hammond was a two-time Olympian for Great Britain in shooting, and his Mountaineers program has produced six NCAA team championships, 10 individual national titles and several Olympians, including gold medalists Ginny Thrasher and Nicco Campriani.
Sunderman had considered joining the Army, so he joined the West Virginia National Guard, too. "That's where everything just took off,'' he said.
He studied sports psychology at West Virginia, which informed his view of a sport that is more about slow breathing than fast-twitch muscles. He helped West Virginia win four of those NCAA titles in rifle shooting. He won a silver medal at the 2021 ISSF World Cup in India, and earned the National Defense Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon.
"He tries ski jumping," said Mike Sunderman, Patrick's father. "He broke his leg. He was not too thrilled with that sport after that. He played baseball, and was pretty good at that, too, but then a little ways into his baseball career, the rifle team he was with wound up going to the national championships. He had to choose between a national championship shooting event and an all-star baseball game. He chose the rifle. I think he made the right decision.''
What began as a hobby has become a life. At 26 and competing in a sport not as punishing to 30-somethings as gymnastics or sprinting, he looks forward to competing for another Olympic spot and continuing his Army career.
According to his Team USA bio, he enlisted in 2016 and was assigned to U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit as a shooter and instructor.
"I think in the future he will just continue shooting," Mike Sunderman said. "He's not too old to be considering getting out. I think he plans to go for at least one more Olympics.
"I think he's going to finish 20 years in the Army. That's what he wants to do. I would imagine there could be some coaching opportunities in his future, but right now he wants to do well in this Olympics and then start thinking about Paris. We're really hoping for that one.''
What began at the cabin in Cambridge with an air rifle continues at the Olympics in Tokyo with a specialized gun.
"Back then, I was just having fun, even shooting muzzle-loaders," Sunderman said. "Once I got to high school, I started transitioning from having fun to thinking, 'Maybe I can actually do something with this.' And now we're here."