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Lifelong Olympic Dreams Lead Stephanie Fryer To The Shooting Range And Olympic Trials

By Darci Miller | Dec. 04, 2015, 9:31 p.m. (ET)

Stephanie Fryer competes in women's air pistol at the 2015 USA Shooting National Championship on June 27, 2015 in Fort Benning, Ga.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- One year after competing in her first shooting match, Stephanie Fryer found herself in the Day 1 women’s air pistol final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Airgun. Though still relatively new to the sport, Fryer is closer than she’s ever been to the Olympic dream that has consumed her life.

“I’ve probably dreamed about the Olympics for as long as I can remember,” said Fryer. “I didn’t have TV growing up, and I remember one of our friends recorded on VHS tapes all of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. And I think probably for four years straight, I just watched every single video. I could probably quote all the commentators back to you.”

Her road to national prominence in shooting, however, was not quite so direct.

When her older brother began taking gymnastics lessons, Fryer followed him into the gym. The floor exercise mat was where she learned to walk, and she began taking classes when she was 3 or 4 years old. Despite her passion for the sport, she knew she would never make the Olympic team, and retired as a Level 9 gymnast when she was 18.

While a gymnast, she was exposed to her next adventure: track and field. Her dad was the cross-country coach at her high school so she ran “as an on-the-side thing,” and when she decided to attend Division III Colorado College, she was able to walk onto the team.

“I didn’t have to be fast. I wasn’t fast. This body wasn’t designed to do distance events,” Fryer said with a laugh. “I tried, I had a good time.”

Most importantly, her time running cross-country at Colorado College led her to her next athletic love: pole vaulting.

“Our head track coach at CC tried to convince me to do it freshman year,” she said, “but I think I read a newspaper article about a girl from town that was a state champion and it was like, ‘She was a great pole vaulter because she was a Level 6 gymnast.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this. I can do this.’

“Gymnastics gives you such great body awareness, and you’re not afraid of being upside down, and you have the control to get yourself upside down, so it transfers really well.”

Fryer began pole vaulting “for fun” in college and began taking it seriously in 2008, training with a coach in North Carolina. Her focus was on getting to the national championships, Olympic Trials and, eventually, the Olympic Games, until torn tendons in her foot ended her 10-year vaulting career in 2012.

“(Quitting) was really hard. I’d given everything to pole vaulting,” Fryer said. “I tried to make a comeback. (My foot) is fine now, but if I tried to train at the level I would need to to be competitive, it just doesn’t handle it. So I tried to come back, and when I couldn’t I just jumped straight onto a bike and didn’t give myself time to process what was happening.”

Married to a track cyclist, living not far from a velodrome and having easy access to a training group, Fryer immediately found herself her next sport. It wasn’t much of a stretch; she also raced bikes in college, “just for fun.” She spent a year on the track before her husband’s coach stepped in.

“Geoff’s coach was basically like, ‘You need to take a break and figure out what you’re doing with your life,’” said Fryer. “He made me step away and figure out what I wanted to do. I took a break, kind of figured out what I wanted to do in life, and then came back to sports. It was like a year and a half, so it was a good figure-out-your-life-plan time.

“His son-in-law is actually the guy that introduced me to shooting, so it kind of worked out well.”

That son-in-law is Keith Sanderson, a rapid fire pistol shooter and two-time Olympian who has already qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team. Sanderson convinced Fryer she had the potential to be a successful shooter given her athletic background; her pole vaulting had given her a very strong upper body and core, which would translate well to shooting.

Still, Fryer had never touched a gun before and wasn’t entirely sold. But another elite shooter – Michael Tagliapietra, a 2016 Paralympic hopeful – took her out on the range for the first time. She was immediately hooked by the intense mental challenge the sport provided and it wasn’t long before she decided to pursue it seriously.

“Eh, maybe like two weeks,” she said, laughing. “I tend to jump into things with both feet, if you can’t tell.”

She competed in her first match in December 2014. One year later, the 31-year-old is competing at her first Olympic Trials in any sport. She trains and gives tours at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Though it’s her new normal, the magnitude of what she does is not lost on her.

“It was always a dream of mine when I was pole vaulting to get to be training at the Olympic Training Center,” said Fryer. “Now it feels normal because I’m here every day, but I feel like when athletes get used to the fact that they’re here and treat it like it’s not a big deal, that’s when it starts becoming less helpful. You’ve got to respect that it’s pretty darn awesome. And doing the tours helps keep me grounded, because everyone’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing!’ So to hear that every day is pretty nice.”

At Olympic Trials, Fryer qualified for the Day 1 final with the third-highest score. She finished seventh in the final behind medalists 2008 Olympian Brenda Silva, two-time national champion Courtney Anthony and Lydia Paterson. Trials consists of three qualifiers and three separate finals, and points from all three days of competition will be tallied, with the top 10 finishers in each discipline moving on to the next round of Trials in June. While her first result gives her confidence moving forward, Fryer’s main goal is to gain experience and get used to high-pressure situations. Though she’s shooting with the Rio Olympics in sight, the longevity of athletes in shooting means the pressure is off.

“Even if Rio doesn’t happen, I’m in this sport for the long haul,” said Fryer. “It’s not like pole vaulting, where a major injury is going to set me back. I’m going to keep doing this and keep working. I’m going to be in this sport for a while.”