Sure Shots

Rifle athletes aim high by training bodies and minds
By Cary Estes • Photos by Steve Wood • Video by Jeff Myers, Andrea Reiber, and Carson Young
Photo of UAB rifle athlete taking aim at a target; headline: Sure Shots
Rifle athletes aim high by training bodies and minds
By Cary Estes • Photos by Steve Wood • Video by Jeff Myers, Andrea Reiber, and Carson Young
The first gold medal awarded at the 2016 Summer Olympics was won not by Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, or any of the other highly touted athletes gathered in Rio de Janeiro. Instead, it went to an unknown American teenager named Ginny Thrasher, who shot to international attention by winning in the sport of air rifle.
“We’re proud that the first gold went to a U.S. athlete doing what we do,” says Lori Goodwin, head coach of the Blazer rifle team. “It reminds everybody that we are an Olympic sport.”
UAB has fielded a women’s rifle team for more than 20 years. But after a brief hiatus, the program returned in 2015 as a coed squad. This year’s 12-member team consists of eight women and four men, which Goodwin calls a logical progression in a sport that does not separate the sexes.
“Rifle truly is a gender-equal sport,” Goodwin says. “Men and women practice together and compete against each other. By adding guys to the team, I have a bigger field of potential recruits. When we went to competitions, our girls were competing against guys anyway.”

Precision Wins It

The rules and scoring for rifle are relatively simple. “It’s basically shooting at a bullseye,” Goodwin explains, comparing the sport to archery. As a result, success often depends more on the athletes’ mental, rather than physical, approach.
“It’s one thing to just shoot at a target. We’re trying to hit the very center of that target, and the scoring goes down to a tenth of a point,” says student-athlete Ella Von Canon, a senior from Fairfax Station, Virginia, majoring in nursing. “So it requires extreme precision, which comes down to body mechanics, concentration, breathing techniques, and eye fatigue. We have to incorporate all that, and if we lose focus, our scores plummet.”
Overhead photo of rifle athletes firing at targets at campus practice facility(Above and at top) Rifle athletes fire at targets during team practice.
Teammate Sarah Banks agrees. A junior finance major from Hueytown, Alabama, Banks has been shooting since she was nine years old, when she would hunt with her father. “It’s easy to pick up a gun and pull the trigger,” she says. “It’s not easy to shoot a perfect shot over and over. You can do everything right as far as fundamentals go. You can get in the right position and have everything set up perfectly. But if your mental game is not on, then you won’t shoot well. While you might make a few good shots, the key is being able to do it again and again and again.”

Brain Game

The team practices on campus in a racquetball court that has been converted into a rifle range. Banks says much of practice is spent training their brains. “We like to do stress tests and things like that,” she explains. “You have to tell yourself to breathe steadily, to pull the trigger slowly. If you tell yourself all the right things to do, then you’ll probably end up doing those things. But if you start thinking about what you’re not supposed to do, you probably won’t shoot well.”
The student-athletes carry that intense focus into the classroom, says Von Canon. She began participating in shooting competitions as a high school sophomore and fell in love with rifle. “When I was looking at UAB, the rifle team was a huge draw, because there aren’t a lot of colleges with the sport,” says Von Canon, who also is a member of the UAB ROTC program. “It’s fantastic to be in a sport that requires so much mental preparation and concentration. It definitely helps with my schoolwork. Rifle has shown me how to completely block outside stimuli; it is my escape from everything.”

Published March 2017