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A shot at the Olympics

Military marksmen battle doubt, find focus in golden quest

May. 28, 2008 - 02:45PM   |   Last Updated: May. 28, 2008 - 02:45PM  |  
Army Spc. Jeff Holguin ejects shells while competing during a non-Olympic trial competition held May 16 at Fort Benning. Holguin has qualified for the Olympic team in double trap.
Army Spc. Jeff Holguin ejects shells while competing during a non-Olympic trial competition held May 16 at Fort Benning. Holguin has qualified for the Olympic team in double trap. (M. SCOTT MAHASKEY / STAFF)
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Army Maj. Mike Anti collects his thoughts while competing during the free rifle prone competition held on May 14 at the Olympic trials at Fort Benning. (M. SCOTT MAHASKEY / STAFF)

FORT BENNING, Ga. — When Day 2 of the Olympic shooting trials ended for Petty Officer 2nd Class Sandra Uptagrafft, she set down her pistol, stepped back from the firing line and quietly put her face in her hands. The numbers weren't where she wanted them to be.

The Navy reservist entered this sport pistol contest in command of first place, but she was now behind in the competition for one of two slots on the women's 2008 Olympic team. Day 3 promised to be tense. Beijing was slipping even further away.

Precision shooting is a lonely sport. Dozens of America's best military and civilian small-bore pistol and rifle shooters attended the Olympic trials here in mid-May to scrap for seven remaining spots on the 22-person team that will compete this August in China. (Fifteen shooters, including four soldiers and an airman, qualified during shotgun and air rifle trials held several weeks ago.)

With the room for error next to nil, this experience would end in disappointment for most. But when the gun smoke cleared, four more military marksmen had made the cut. In all, nine service members will represent their country — and their services — on the U.S. shooting team. Their Olympic success, it's clear, will depend on the right mix of skill and psychology.

VIDEO

http://www.militarytimes.com/multimedia/video/ot_muggeo/">Click here to learn more about the Army Marksmanship Unit, which placed six soldiers on the Olympic shooting team.

For Uptagrafft, that mix proved elusive.

"I don't know; I feel tired today," Uptagrafft, an information systems technician stationed in Colorado, told one of her supporters after the sport pistol results were tallied for Day 2. Ordinarily the embodiment of calm, Uptagrafft started to over-think as she aimed her Feinwerkbau AW93 at the target 25 meters downrange. She needed to regroup, but waning momentum going into Day 3, when she shot her weakest score, stymied her ability to put rounds where she needed them to be.

In the end, even though her three-day combined performance was good enough for third place overall, her Olympic bid was finished.

Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Callahan, a reservist from Fort Gillem, Ga., turned in a monster score to beat out Uptagrafft and take the team spot away from her.

"I fell down," Uptagrafft said a few days later, still struggling to calculate precisely how she lost what would've been her first trip to the summer games. "It was like running a foot race, and when you get to the end you fall. ... I had it in my grasp and let it slip through my fingers."

A tough bunch to beat

In precision shooting events, even the slightest self-doubt can be viciously difficult to overcome. Absolute confidence is an essential catalyst for success. The Army Marksmanship Unit, which is based at Fort Benning, fosters that brand of optimism.

This crew seems to overshadow competitive shooters in the other military services, whose teams don't have the AMU's depth or its financial dedication to producing Olympians. Its signature gold-and-black polo shirts appeared on every firing line at every event during the trials. Six of its members are headed to Beijing.

"That's the greatest honor of all, representing the country, the Army and the Army Marksmanship Unit," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker, who qualified for the air rifle and three-position events. "That's what a lot of shooters work most for — just to hear the national anthem."

These elite soldiers consistently dominate their American competition (both military and civilian), and they more than hold their own in the international arena. Since 1956, the year the unit was formed, AMU soldiers have won 21 of the U.S.'s 38 Olympic medals in shooting, the last in 2004, when Maj. Michael Anti brought home a silver in three-position rifle.

Clearly, they're doing something right. The Army has "provided me the best resources, the best coaches and the best gunsmiths in the world," said Anti, who qualified for his fourth Olympics on May 15 after three days of prone rifle competition. Sprawled out on a foam mat, he can nail a dime-size target 50 meters away with stupefying accuracy.

Sure, having expert guidance and killer equipment helps — Anti shoots a customized Anschütz .22-caliber rifle that receives ample TLC from the Army's top gun gurus — but it's the intensive physical and mental preparation that nourishes his ability to concentrate shot after shot.

"We train every day, four to five hours a day, and that [helps me] to stay focused during competition," he said. "I tell myself three things: ‘Relax, squeeze and follow through.' Those are the basics to shooting. And if you stick with the basics, you're going to be successful."

Playing head games

Apart from that foundation, a shooter's best friend is a clear head. Alas, that's not always easy to accomplish, especially in big-time settings such as the Olympics. The combat connotations are obvious. Even at the trials, anxiety can run amok.

Marine Capt. Janine Mills, who teaches war-fighting skills to new lieutenants at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., came to Fort Benning for her second sport pistol competition since graduating five years ago from the Naval Academy, where she was a member of the international pistol team. Her technique was admittedly a little rusty but, worse yet, she found herself fixating on her score rather than simply making individual shots. That, she said, exacerbated her eventual downfall.

"I kept telling myself, ‘I know I can do better,'" Mills said. "I focused on the outcome, not on the moment."

In the competitive shooting realm, people are always preaching the need for greater focus, but the mind can be a tricky thing to tame. Can you really coach it to stay quiet? Daniel Vitchoff, who runs the Pennsylvania Hypnosis Center in Pittsburgh, says yes.

For the past year and a half, Vitchoff, who calls himself a "mental manager," has traveled to Benning regularly to work with AMU shooters. He uses hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming to help them find their cerebral sweet spots.

The process starts with an evaluation of each shooter: how they were raised, how they train, how they compete and so on. From there he employs his "33 method," a form of psychological training that he says can root out a person's self-doubt and stifle his destructive behaviors. A key component is "self talk" exercises tailored to each shooter.

"‘I'm confident. I sleep well. I will perform like a champion. My eyes are focused,'" Vitchoff said. "When you say those things over and over and over again, it becomes part of your subconscious; ... it becomes habit." In time, Vitchoff said, he envisions equipping the AMU with — no joke — a relaxation facility, complete with zero-gravity chairs.

Army Spc. Jeffery Holguin, a double trap shooter with the unit's shotgun team, spends his days preparing both body and mind for his first Olympics. He likes self talk well enough, and it's become an important part of his game, but it was music — one tune in particular — that carried him through the trials in March.

"I'll never forget," he said, "it was ‘Psycho' by Puddle of Mudd." The song, appropriately enough, repeats the refrain, "We're gonna win again."

A curious choice, perhaps, for someone seeking enlightenment, but for Holguin and other shooters who swear by such techniques, the end matters more than the means. Ultimately, everyone's goal is the same: When it comes time to compete, do whatever it takes so you don't psych yourself out.

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