As an 18-year-old competing on a global stage in the world of Paralympic shooting, McKenna Dahl isn’t the least bit intimidated by the fact that most of her fellow competitors are men who have been competing for as long as she’s been alive.
“One of my favorite things to do is wear very feminine, bright pink shirts and all of the guys are looking at me like, ‘What are you doing,’” Dahl, an Arlington, Washington, native, said in a recent telephone interview. “I think it’s a lot of fun.”
Dahl’s lack of intimidation was never more evident than it was in August 2013, when Dahl, then still a high school student, held off Australia’s Mark Bradley to win the falling target rifle 2 competition — and her first major championship — at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee World Cup in Bangkok.
Before snagging gold, Dahl had almost no familiarity with the falling target event in which athletes must use an air rifle to hit five discs of descending size within a 2 minute, 30 second time limit. In fact, she had no idea that a gold medal was even at stake in the event.
“I just considered it a really fun event, and then I was in the final round and I was tied for the gold medal with a shooter from Australia,” she said, referring to Bradley. “We had a seven-shot shoot off to see who would get the gold medal, because we kept hitting and missing at the same time until the very last shot — the seventh shot.”
Dahl — who was born with a rare muscle disorder, amyoplasia, that affects her muscle growth and joint movement — competes in the SH2 class of Paralympic shooting. That means she can’t support the air rifle herself and therefore uses a shooting stand.
“It was crazy, but it was really exciting,” Dahl said of the falling target event in Thailand. “I didn’t realize you could get a medal for the event, I just thought we were doing it for fun.
“It definitely helped my confidence, because it showed me that I could shoot at the same level as some shooters that have been shooting for a lot longer than I have been, and I could shoot against and beat people who have been to the Paralympics.”
The IPC also noticed Dahl’s newfound confidence after her first gold by putting Dahl on its list of “Top 10 Para-Athletes You Should Like Before 2016.” But even though that distinction came well ahead of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janerio, Dahl didn’t let it go to her head.
“I think (it put) pressure on me in a good way,” she said. “They put me on the list because they thought I could shoot and perform at a high level. I guess it reassured me I was on the right track and preforming the way I needed to be.”
She stayed on that track for Rio by finishing 20th in the R4 10-meter air rifle mixed standing SH2 event at the 2014 IPC Shooting World Championships this past July in Suhl, Germany. While the performance earned Team USA a 2016 Paralympic quota spot in the event, National Paralympic Coach Bob Foth will ultimately decide who fills that spot.
Dahl said it is “a little nerve-wracking” not knowing if or when she will be named to the U.S. Paralympic Team but that Foth said she has a good shot.
“Rio has been my goal pretty much since I started shooting,” she said. “So yeah, there are other Games (after Rio), but I would really like to shoot and perform well in Rio. It would mean a lot to me. I don’t really know how to explain it. It would be a huge honor to go get to represent my country at the Games.”
In 2002, Dahl began attending a summer camp for disabled children in Washington called Camp Access, and in 2009 the director of the camp took all the 12-year-old campers out shooting. Dahl and one of her best friends at the camp immediately took to the sport and soon enrolled in a local National Rifle Association sectional competition. While she also played other sports throughout her youth, including wheelchair basketball, Dahl said she was drawn to shooting because it’s more personal.
“It didn’t matter what anyone else did,” said Dahl, who served as a Brownell Junior Ambassador and participated in the NRA’s Youth Education Summit. “You can only control your mind and your shot and your score. I absolutely loved it, and they put me in touch with Bob Foth.”
Dahl traveled to competitions throughout middle school and most of high school, but during her senior year she only attended one completition over spring break as she focused on a full load of community college classes.
Only a week after graduating from Lakewood High School with two years of college credit under her belt, Dahl moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with a full scholarship to DeVry University in hand. She currently takes online courses in business and technology management at DeVry and is completing a specialization in criminal justice.
Dahl said she hopes to attend law school one day.
Her shooting scores have also skyrocketed since moving to the OTC, where she shot a personal best 633.7 in practice this past November.
Noting that her sport is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, she said working with sports psychologists and personal trainers in Colorado Springs will help put her that much closer to her goal of shooting in Rio next year.
“It’s just going up in steps at each of the world cups I attend,” she said of her shooting ability, “(while I’m) trying to put medaling in Rio in my sight.”