COLORADO SPRINGS – On the mantel in Matt and Katy Emmons’ home is a custom frame holding Matt’s Olympic shooting gold medal from the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. On it are the words: “Win with Grace, Lose with Grace.”
He has lived the phrase, especially on the Olympic stage.
In addition to the 2004 gold in prone rifle, he won 2008 silver in the same event. But at those same two Games, he misfired on his last shots in 50-meter rifle three position, dropping both times from likely champion to cursed competitor.
“I’m probably the craziest man out there, to try to do it again,” said Emmons, a 31-year-old New Jersey native who competes in 10-meter air rifle Monday and three position Aug. 6.
While he could find redemption in London, he is not trying again for that reason. He is still shooting simply because he loves it, and because he believes he can be better -- and not just at the Olympics.
“Of course, I live for the Olympics,” he says. “That’s what I train for, that’s what I love to go to. The whole experience and the competition and everything is what I want to do. But at the same time, whatever happens at the Olympics doesn’t define my career.”
“The way that I play the game is not something that happens just once every four years. It’s what I do every day.”
It is also what his wife does every day. A native of the Czech Republic, she won air rifle gold and three position silver in Beijing.
To open the London Games, she finished fourth in air rifle. She will compete in three position Saturday.
The two met hours after Emmons’ 2004 misfire. He headed to a beer garden near the shooting range to relax. She saw him there and approached to console him.
“It made him more mature,” she says of his Olympic misfortunes. “You can’t win unless you lose. That’s what makes you want it even more. He really does want to do well at the Olympics in that particular event, I know that.”
In Athens, with a big lead entering the three position final, he fired his last shot at the wrong target, scoring zero and dropping out of medal position.
Between 2004 and 2008, Emmons met frequently with U.S. Olympic Committee sport psychologist Sean McCann.
“One of the ways to leave thoughts of the past in the past is to make sure that the emotional power of past events has decreased,” McCann says. “We know that ‘exposure’ decreases emotional responses to situations and thoughts.”
Emmons says he took more careful note of his thoughts every time he went into a final with the lead. He worked on visualization.
He went so far as to plan for at least one Chinese shooter making the three position final at the Beijing Games, which would give him more opportunity to be focused for his shot.
“I’m usually the last guy to shoot on each shot in the final. I figured OK, I’ll be just a little bit quicker, and I trained this, and that way if the crowds start doing some crazy stuff or making a bunch of noise, to try to eliminate that distraction,” he says.
Unfortunately, he shot even more quickly than he planned. He inadvertently pulled his trigger early on the last shot, scoring 4.4 and falling to fourth from first.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Katy, who was commentating on the competition for Czech television. “I couldn’t believe it was happening again. Like, him. That’s some bad luck right there.”
The two have not talked much about what happened in Beijing, they say. Emmons continues to work with McCann.
“Having a gold and silver Olympic medal in your pocket helps a great deal when pushing for another one,” McCann says “The idea of adding a third or fourth medal is a much more fun idea than ‘making up for’ a medal lost in the past.”
Emmons just recently watched his Beijing miss, beginning to end, with McCann for the first time. He has not watched a replay of the 2004 crossfire.
“After 2008, what kept me going is I have a couple rules for myself -- and I’ll say the same thing after this Olympics – as long as I’m still getting paid to do what I do and I can support my family, as long as I’m still having fun, and as long as I still believe that I can be one of the best in the world, as long as those three things fit, why not?” Emmons said.
He and Katy, who were married in 2007, have a 3-year-old daughter, Julie. They juggle childcare with training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Julie has provided perspective for Emmons, as has a 2010 thyroid cancer scare.
“All of these things made me realize that there are some things in life that are a whole lot more important than pulling a trigger or winning a competition or any of those things,” he says.
When a friend made a frame for his 2004 gold, he asked Emmons what words he would like on it. Emmons chose “Win with Grace, Lose with Grace,” because “that’s what a real sportsman does,” he says.
“When I look back over the last eight years, I’m actually kind of thankful that what happened, happened,” Emmons says. “I’m a lot wiser and I’m probably a lot more respectful competitor than I used to be. I just look at things a lot different now.
“If you always have success, you sometimes don’t see what real sport is about. You only know winning.”
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.