COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Sarah Scherer knows how to stay calm. With one Olympic appearance, 17 world cup appearances and two world cup medals under her belt, the rifle shooter has had plenty of experience.
Yet at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Airgun, she found herself getting emotional on the first day of competition.
“Going into the match, I was just so happy to be there,” Scherer said. “I didn’t know exactly how it was going to go. I didn’t know how my back would feel after a couple days. Is it going to feel great? Will it feel terrible? I had a lot of unknown. But you just show up every day and do the best you can. That’s really all you can do.”
It might seem odd for the 24-year-old to worry about her back, but for Scherer it’s part of her reality.
While training for last year’s world championships in September 2014 in Granada, Spain, Scherer noticed her balance was off. Even more alarming, when she stepped out of her stance, one of her feet was tingling. A team physical therapist ran her through some tests but ultimately took her to a nearby hospital, where they used Google translate to try to explain to the Spanish staff what the problem was. Though Scherer laughs about it now, that moment was the beginning of a long, arduous road.
The diagnosis was several herniated discs in her lower back. Scherer underwent surgery to get rid of the damage and began physical therapy, only for her symptoms to resurface four months later. She attempted to fix the problem with more physical therapy, ultimately opting for a second surgery in June.
“We were a little bit more on the restricted side getting back into things,” Scherer said of returning to training. “We took it slow because herniated discs never really go away. They can re-herniate any time. So I had to be really careful getting back into training.”
In the interim, Scherer stepped almost entirely away from shooting. It looked like she wouldn’t be able to recover in time to make the 2016 Olympic team, and doctors were frank about her back’s inability to hold up for her to have a shot in 2020. While she threw herself into other pursuits – going to grad school and starting her own business among them – she ultimately decided that doing less training for shooting would be best for her mental health.
“I didn’t do the mental training all the way through just because I was going to retire and there was so much up in the air that it was frustrating for me to be around people and do half of the training,” said Scherer. “I made the call that I think doing less would be more beneficial to keeping me positive and looking forward to the future, rather than just ‘this sucks.’
“But once it looked like I was going to get cleared for this match I started full-bore training.”
Scherer was only cleared to fully resume air rifle training a month ago. Olympic Trials would be her first competition since May 2014. Upon hearing the news that she could compete, she had a brief moment of joy before immediately buckling down to get to work. Though 15 years of muscle memory was a huge help, Scherer had to re-learn her techniques and figure out how to maximize her training.
“In all honesty, I wouldn’t be training right now if I didn’t expect myself to go to the next Olympics and win a medal,” said Scherer. “I would rather have another athlete get the spot if I thought they could do better than me, if I thought my injuries would hold me back. I’m a different athlete now than I was four years ago, but I’m still a high-performance athlete and I still don’t just want to be there. I want to do really well for my country. That goal has stayed the same for me.”
Her month of training and 15 years of practice and muscle memory paid off, as Scherer finished second overall after three days of competition, easily qualifying for the second round of Trials in the spring. With a run at the 2020 Olympic team already off the table, Scherer knows that this is her final shot at another Games.
“Every athlete has to retire someday,” she said. “You can’t do it for forever. You have to look at what else you want to accomplish with your life. I’ve done a lot other than shooting, so I’ve always had the perspective that this is an amazing blessing, what I’ve been able to do right now, but at the same time I have to know it’s going to end and I have to prepare myself for that life. I have to be realistic.
“Even just pushing my body to this point has been very tough, and I’m only going to continue injuring myself. I love this sport and I love the people in it and I love what I’ve been able to do because of this sport, but at some point you have to think, OK, I’d like to be able to feel my feet for the rest of my life.”
Joining 2012 Olympian Scherer in the women’s air rifle field at the final stage of Olympic Trials in June are Sarah Beard, Rhiann Travis, Meredith Carpentier, Minden Miles, Virginia Thrasher, Sagen Maddalena, Hannah Black, Alison Weisz and Hanna Carr. The men’s air rifle athletes, who will vie for two Olympic spots, are Garrett Spurgeon, Lucas Kozeniesky, Ivan Roe, Ryan Anderson, Pan American Games bronze medalist Bryant Wallizer, Daniel Lowe, Dempster Christenson, Thomas Csenge, George Norton and Matthew Rawlings.
In men’s air pistol, top qualifier Will Brown will be joined by James Henderson, Pan Am Games silver medalist Jay Shi, 2008 Olympian Brian Beaman, 2012 Olympian Nick Mowrer, Alexander Chichkov, James Hall, Stephen Lutz, Greg Markowski and Cody Owsley. Rounding out the field in women’s air pistol are Courtney Anthony, Alexis Lagan, Lydia Paterson, 2008 Olympian Brenda Silva, Teresa Chambers, Taylor Gallegos, Nathalia Granados Gomez, Stephanie Fryer, Susan Brown and Carson Saabye, who at age 13 became the youngest national team member ever earlier this year.