12 in '12: London hopeful Matt Emmons

By Brandon Penny | Aug. 02, 2010, 2:17 p.m. (ET)

The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away.  The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The fourth part of the series features gold and silver medalist shooter from Athens and Beijing, Matt Emmons.

Olympic gold medalist. Olympic silver medalist. World Cup Final champion.

After winning gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and silver at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Matt Emmons hopes to head to his third Games to continue his dominance in the shooting world. Both of his Olympic medals are in the 50-meter rifle prone event and in London he will look to win medals in the 50m rifle 3 positions and 10m air rifle events as well. As a veteran of the sport, Emmons knows what to work on and feels he will be ready when the time comes in two years.

Matthew Emmons grew up around shooting, since most of the men in his family were hunters.  However, he did not realize it was a sport until his freshman year of high school when the town’s head firearms instructor told his father there are colleges that give scholarships for shooting.  Emmons picked up a rifle and the firearms instructor told him he looked good.

Emmons found a shooting club an hour away from his hometown of Mount Holly, N.J., and started training with one of the women on the national team and her father, who was the club’s coach.

He found early success in the sport by becoming the junior world record holder in 50m rifle 3 positions and going on to win the 2002 International Shooting Sport Federation [ISSF] World Cup Final in that event when he was just 21.

Emmons won the World Cup Final again in 2004 and was on track to make the 2004 Olympic team.

The team was getting ready to head from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to Fort Benning, Ga. before going to Athens for the final World Cup test event. As Emmons prepared for the trip, he took his guns out and put them away in the case to pack them up when he felt something was wrong.

“I noticed one of the guns looked different at first when you put the bullet in,” Emmons said.  “But I didn’t think anything of it.”

When they got down to Fort Benning, Emmons went to shoot air rifles. They didn’t look or feel right to him, but he shook it off and went to shoot .22s.

“It felt gritty,” Emmons said. “Like there was sand on the bullet. So I shot it and couldn’t get the bullet out.”

Emmons said when he looked at the chamber, where the bullet goes, he realized it looked as if someone had put a screwdriver in, gouged it out and destroyed the whole thing. The same thing had been done to his air rifle.

Two weeks later, Emmons needed a gun for Olympic Trials. He asked his former University of Alaska Fairbanks teammate, Amber Darland, if he could borrow hers, even though he had never shot with it before.

Using Darland’s gun, Emmons won both events at Trials. He qualified for the 2004 Games, while Darland did not, so he continued to use her gun in Athens.

“There are a lot of guys out there that can win on any given day,” Emmons said of his chances of medaling at the 2004 Athens Games. “It boils down to who does well on that one day, but I was prepared to be in that situation. Walking in, I was prepared for, ‘Okay I shoot my qualification and I can go into the final in first place, how am I gonna deal with that?’ I wouldn’t say I was expecting to win, but I was prepared.”

His preparation paid off when Emmons won the gold medal in the 50m rifle prone event, becoming the first American to win the event in 20 years.

“My whole career had been a building point up until then, just constant improvement,” Emmons said. “When I got there and I won the tournament it was like all the planning we had done and all the hard work we set forth, it worked. That was just really cool.”

Darland retired in 2005, and Emmons still uses her rifle to this day.

Transition to Beijing
In his second event in Athens, the 50m rifle 3 positions, Emmons fired at the wrong target  in his final shot and finished in eighth place.  After all of the shooting events had ended, Emmons went to a beer garden to talk to other shooters and relax. 2004 Olympic bronze medalist from the Czech Republic, Katerina Kurkova, and her father, Petr, approached Emmons to tell him they were sorry about the 50m rifle 3 positions and that they thought he did a great job regardless. A few months later, Emmons met Kurkova again at the ISSF World Cup Final, where they really hit it off.

Three years later, the couple was married and Kurkova became Katy Emmons.

Matt Emmons spent the time between Athens and the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games improving his technical skills and his physical strength. He proved his Athens gold medal was not a fluke by winning the 2004 and 2007 ISSF World Cup Finals in 50m rifle 3 positions, and earning silver at the 2005 ISSF World Cup Final for the same event, as well as silver in 2007 for 50m rifle prone.

Although Emmons improved physically and technically in that time, his mental game was not as sharp come time for Beijing.

“Mentally, I wasn’t as prepared walking into Beijing as I was walking into Athens,” Emmons said. “I didn’t feel I was where I wanted to be. I also went through quite a few changes, I got married in there which was a positive thing but having a spouse that was also a really good shooting athlete – was something I wasn’t used to.”

Emmons learned to deal with being married to a fellow Olympic shooter, and to use it as motivation.

“It’s inspiring, especially when you see the other one doing well,” Emmons said. “Sometimes it’s challenging when you’re struggling and the other one’s doing well, because you want to do well too but you can’t. But it’s really fun to share in each other’s success.”

Watching his wife, Katy, compete in Beijing was particularly stressful for Emmons. He watched her win the first gold of those Games in the 10m air rifle and then a silver in 50m rifle 3 positions.

“She was done before I started,” Emmons said. “She got her silver, and the next day I had to compete and get mine. It made it harder because she had a gold and silver and it was like, ‘All right, here’s my chance.’”

He came away from his first event, 50m rifle prone, with the silver medal – a feat that was just as victorious for him as his 2004 gold.

According to Emmons, the range in Beijing is not what he would call fair. He said the shooters on the end of the range had a big advantage over the people in the middle of the range because the wind was much more difficult in the middle.

“Only two of the guys in the final came from the middle,” Emmons said. “The rest were from the wall.”

Emmons was, of course, one of those two guys. He said earning that silver medal was probably the best performance of his life.

“I used every trick I had in my bag to get the job done,” Emmons said. “And I knew that that was the best I could’ve done. I was actually extremely satisfied with it.”

Emmons is equally proud of both if his Olympic medals, and rightfully so considering what he had to overcome to earn them.

Emmons used the rest of 2008 and most of 2009 as a transition period. He took some time off from the sport to make big changes in his life. He and Katy had a daughter and moved into a new house.

He went to the 2009 ISSF World Cup Final, where he won gold in the 50m rifle 3 positions.  This season, Emmons picked up where he left off and has continued to dominate. He took home gold in three different World Cups in Fort Benning, Belgrade and Sydney, in the 50m rifle 3 positions, as well as a bronze in the 50m rifle prone.

The next big challenge for Emmons will be the ISSF World Shooting Championships, which run until Aug. 11, in Munich. Emmons only success at the World Championships came in 1998 when he earned a bronze in the 50m rifle prone and again in 2002 when he won gold in that event.

Emmons has no idea how good his shooting will be at World Championships this year, but he does know that he is improving and is on track for a great performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“I’m starting to get back to where I wanted to be” Emmons said. “I’m feeling comfortable with things, have a good perspective on life. Things are moving in the right direction for sure.”

Emmons is working on fine-tuning what needs to be improved over the next two years. He hopes to once again have three events to compete in at the Games, which he has not done since 2004: 50m rifle prone, 50m rifle 3 positions, and 10m air rifle. Emmons is also counting on feeling mentally prepared for London, something else which he has not done since 2004.

“I’d really want to be able to enjoy this one more than Beijing,” Emmons said. “Beijing was a lot of stress. Hopefully this one will be more like Athens where I feel ready. I don’t know if I’m gonna win, but I want to know that I have all the tools I need to be successful.”

Even though the 2012 Games are two years away, the selection process has already begun for shooters. Competitors can earn points at World Cup and World Championship events this season, which will carry over to next year.

“I don’t know what the range is gonna look like,” Emmons said. “But knowing what it’s like to stand in finals in the first position is something I can start thinking about now.”

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