FORT BENNING, Ga. – It is media day for the Olympic and Paralympic shooters who train as part of the U.S. Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga. About a dozen reporters, photographers and videographers are gathered in an indoor shooting range observing a handful of elite shooters training, yet it is so quiet a whisper or cough calls attention. Josh Olson inhales deeply, blinks once, and then, with his right cheek resting on his rifle, he fires.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the sound of a lead pellet can be heard. It’s not deafening by any means but it is noticeable amidst the silence. A score of 9.9 lights up in red on an electronic board above but Olson doesn’t look up. He adjusts himself in his seat, fingers around a small silver box in search of his next pellet and then starts again. He places the air rifle on his right shoulder and uses his right eye to peer at an electronic 10-ring target 10 meters away. The bulls-eye, which is .5 mm in diameter --- the size of a period in a standard newspaper --- is the only thought on his mind.
“I get as relaxed as I can get,” Olson said. “My feet have to be in the same place. I make sure I am on target and then I raise (the rifle) a little bit and come back down. Then I hold my breath for about six to eight seconds. If I do it any longer, I start losing oxygen in my eyes so if I haven’t fired my shot by then I have to start all over.”
He inhales again, waits about six seconds and fires. Pop!
He does not have to look up at the electronic scoreboard above him to know that he didn’t fire a good score. In qualifying, shots are scored in whole numbers, so if Olson hits the nine-ring, it is worth nine points.
In the finals, however, the top-eight competitors shoot 10 shots, with 75 seconds per shot, and the shots are scored in tenths of a point. A perfect shot is 10.9, and a bulls-eye is anywhere in the 10-point range. The top shooters know within a tenth or two what he or she shot before a score is posted. And Olson knows that if he does not shoot a perfect 600 at the elite competitions he won’t make it to the finals. That is how precise these shooters have to be. Not perfect. Better than perfect.
The 9.1 score doesn’t cut it.
“Absolutely,” Olson said when asked how much that slight margin off perfection upsets him. “I get mad because I know I screwed something up. I know it right away. When I shoot a 9, it’s like a needle scratching on a record. It’s literally like a train wreck. You have to be completely locked in to what you’re doing. A 10.9 is perfect, and that’s my job. It’s what I’m supposed to do.”
But even when he has an errant shot, a shot that by anyone else’s standards would be pretty darn good – imagine a professional bowler missing just one pin - he cannot look back for long. He can only regroup and fire again.
In a matter of about 20 seconds, he goes through the drill again. “I cannot think about anything else,” Olson said. “I try to be as OCD as I can be. I can’t be thinking, ‘Man, did I pay my bill?’ It’s all this. There are times that it is so intense that when I’m done, all I can do is take a nap. There’s even a name for it --- shooter’s crash.”
Every 20 seconds or so, he is firing. Some days, he will do this for an hour and 15 minutes. Usually, he trains alone. But even on the days when his teammates are shooting at the same range or on this particular day, when cameras are leering just several feet away, he may as well be alone. When Olson is at the range, all that he thinks about is the next shot.
He is just warming up. He takes a quick break, takes a sip of water, and then he reloads. The scores start improving.
And on it goes.
He finishes this round with a 10.8 and a 10.1. And after a few more rounds, Olson hops off his chair and grabs his crutches. He does all of this elite-level shooting even though he lost his right leg during combat in Iraq nine years ago. Next month in London, he will be the first active-duty soldier to compete in the Paralympic Games.
Not only will he compete for the United States, but also he continues to serve the U.S. Army by training other military members in shooting. Olson, more appropriately known as Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson, enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 17. A native of Spokane, Wash., Olson found himself deployed to Iraq. Like any soldier, he was trained to take care of his fellow troops and felt guilty that he could not.
“When I first enlisted, I had big aspirations,” Olson said. “I wanted to try out for the Ranger regiment. I wanted to take my military career to a high level. Then …”
His voice trails off. To fill in his blanks, he was in Iraq when he was hit by a grenade. He was in a medically induced coma and awakened to find out his right leg had been amputated. Instead of following his dream of becoming an Army Ranger, he was undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“You’re lying there in a hospital wondering what’s next,” said Olson, who suffered his injury in 2003. “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and it’s dark in the room. In a flash of light, your life is completely changed.”
Olson, who was in his early 20s at the time, had no idea what was next. All he knew was that things would be different. “I thought maybe I would go out to school and just get a job,” he said.
Then, about 18 months into his rehab, he met a man named John Register, and the encounter changed his life. A veteran of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Register also was an All-American track star at Arkansas who twice competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials. But he was injured in a hurdling accident and lost his leg. He went on to swim at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games and earned a silver medal in the long jump at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. Register is now an associate director for community and military programs for U.S. Paralympics.
In 2004, Register was working with a program to encourage military members to use sport as a model for rehabilitation, whether it was at the Paralympic level or just on a recreational basis. He was making routine trips to Walter Reed and met Olson when the two were in the rehabilitation pool. Olson had no desire to compete in anything that required him to use a wheelchair, and at the time, he thought his sports opportunities were limited to wheelchair basketball and wheelchair marathon events.
“I thought, ‘John is cool, but there is no way I could be an elite athlete,’ ” Olson said.
But Register informed him otherwise, and that’s when Olson, who was athletic in his high school days but by no means an elite athlete, realized he could utilize his shooting skills and take them to a new level.
“I told Josh, ‘You can get back in the fight,’ ” Register said. A flash went off in Olson’s mind.
Suddenly, almost as quickly as a lead pellet can reach its target, Olson had a fire back in him. He tried shooting as part of his occupational therapy, and hit 49 of 50 targets. Soon, he found himself at Fort Benning, located about two hours south of Atlanta just a stone’s throw from the Alabama border.
Not long after his injury, he received the Purple Heart from President George W. Bush, and six months later, Olson became the first athlete with a physical disability to be nominated to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
The more Olson trained, and the more success he had in the sport of shooting, the more involved he became in working with fellow soldiers who had been injured in combat and were seeking direction in their new world. He was able to show them that they could continue to serve their country both as active-duty soldiers and by competing internationally for the United States. He has become the ideal spokesman, not just for the U.S. Army but for the Paralympic Movement.
“The first thing that’s special about Josh is that he lives this,” Register said. “He’s been in their shoes. He knows what it’s like to have a limb lost and he knows what it’s like having buddies that didn’t survive. And he knows what it’s like feeling like you’ve let your platoon down. No one wants to do that. You follow the rule: I will never leave a fallen comrade.
“But,” Register said and paused, “The irony is … what happens when you’re the fallen comrade? Someone has to pick you up. And that’s what Josh does.”
This summer, roughly eight years after meeting Register and a year removed from winning the 2011 U.S. National Championships in the mixed 50m prone rifle event, Olson is heading to London. He will compete in the mixed 10m air rifle event and the mixed 50m prone rifle.
“I’m very excited,” said Olson, now 32. “But I’m still pretty numb. It’s hard to believe.”
He has no idea how many soldiers he has inspired to follow his path. Once, while traveling through the airport in Atlanta, a man out of the blue recognized him from a story on the Internet and said, “Thanks for what you do. You’re inspiring.”
Just as quickly as the man approached Olson, the man was gone.
Those who know Olson well are not surprised by his success.
Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker, a three-position rifle shooter who also trains at Fort Benning and will be competing in his fourth Olympic Games in London, called it “an honor” to be Olson’s teammate.
“We don’t always train together but when we go on shooting trips, he’s always the life of the party,” Parker said. “But when it comes time for him to be serious, he can be very serious. And he’s very serious about his duties here.”
Following the Paralympic Games, Olson will return to Fort Benning, where he will continue his training as well as sharing his experiences and marksmanship skills with other soldiers.
Some of those soldiers might follow Olson into the shooting range. “My story didn’t end with my injury,” he said. “It’s like what I tell other soldiers, ‘There’s a whole new chapter. You just have to write it.’ ”
Much of Olson’s postwar life has been written, but he’s leaving room for several more chapters.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.