When John Joss was a boy in Texas, he loved to hunt. After his family moved from Corsicana to Wichita Falls, where there were more wide-open spaces and game, he’d go after wild boar and white-tailed deer, doves and ducks.
“Just growing up — the way I was growing up in Texas, anyway — marksmanship is a big thing,” he recalled recently. “You always want to be better than the man next to you.”
Back then, his sights were set on game and bragging rights. Today, he’s focused on bull’s-eyes. And the number of medals he’s collected leaves no doubt he’s better with a rifle than most of the folks next to him on any range.
Joss, 32, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, is a member of that service’s Marksmanship Unit. After enlisting in 2004 and serving in combat in Iraq, Joss is now part of the unit’s Paralympic section, having lost a portion of his right leg as result of injuries suffered when the vehicle he was riding in was caught in an ambush in May of 2007. His leg was torn apart by one of several improvised explosive devices that were detonated by command, taking out multiple vehicles in his convoy.
Joss remained in the Army and adapted. His prosthesis allows him to walk and run.
In fact he was running on a track at Ft. Benning, Georgia, one day in 2012 when he was approached by a soldier affiliated with the marksmanship group.
“He told me that the Marksmanship Unit had started up a Paralympic program and they were looking for some candidates to fill some slots,” Joss said. “I was given a tryout, and I subsequently made it.”
It was too late to try to qualify for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, but Joss quickly proved he could shoot.
In 2013, he won a bronze medal at the IPC World Cup in Turkey, while setting a U.S. record. He then won a gold at a world cup event in Thailand. Both medals came in the 10-meter air rifle prone competition in the SH1 class (those who have lost lower limbs). He also finished fourth in the 50-meter rifle prone in Thailand. Plus, he won a national championship in the 10-meter air rifle prone en route to being selected USA Shooting Paralympic Athlete of the Year for 2013.
It was an amazing debut year. His quick success was a surprise.
“Yeah, that was unheard of,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when I was nominated and picked. It was quite an honor.”
Joss followed that up last year with another national championship and was part of a three-person team that won a bronze medal at an IPC World Cup at Ft. Benning. Both were in 10-meter air rifle prone.
This year, Joss hasn’t been atop the podium as much, but he’s been steady. He finished second in the 10-meter air rifle prone at the national championships and has made every 50-meter final he’s entered.
“I haven’t won a whole lot, but I’ve been right up there with the best of them,” he said.
Currently, he’s 17th in the world in the latest IPC Shooting world rankings for 10-meter air rifle prone and 10th in 50-meter rifle prone. He’s the top American in each.
In the 10-meter event, an air rifle is used on an indoor range. A .22 rifle is used on an outdoor range in the 50-meter competition.
Next up for Joss is the IPC World Cup in Croatia that begins July 10. Now that he’s completed the national championships, he’s optimistic for Croatia, because this has been a transitional year.
He’s using a new air rifle and also making adjustments from a quest for better fitness. He’s been following a fitness and diet regimen put in place by one of his former coaches at Ft. Benning and has lost 28 to 30 pounds. That’s obviously been a positive, but in shooting — where Joss wears a custom-fit vest — it’s required some adjustments.
“The jacket provides support and an anchor for the sling, and all of those are individually measured to fit you personally,” he said. “And if you have significant changes in weight and shape, then those specific measures that they take are kind of null and void.”
At the national championships, Joss said he was working through both changes just to “see what I could get to work again.”
Now he believes he’s ready to perform at his best at the world cup.
He’s especially looking forward to the 50-meter prone. He’s always loved the event because of its extra elements.
“Fifty meter is more challenging, and it has a lot more to do with not only how well you can point a rifle but being intelligent when it comes to reading wind and conditions and lighting,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it than just pulling the trigger. There’s recoil involved. It’s not that much … (but) when your target is roughly half the size of a dime at 50 meters, then recoil of any kind really comes into effect.”
Plus, Joss has been training with the likes of what he calls “the best 50-meter rifle shooters on the face of the planet Earth,” in U.S. Olympians Matt Emmons, Michael McPhail and Eric Uptagrafft.
“I’ve trained with these guys daily and I’ve got a lot from them, whether it’s coaching or just competitiveness between them and myself, to kind of put myself on a higher training platform than probably anybody else that I would be shooting against,” Joss said.
With a little more than a year to go before the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, Joss is eager for the chance to make the team and compete in Rio. He knows anything can happen, but believes in himself.
“There’s a lot of good shooters out there internationally,” he said. “I’ve beaten just about all of them, and all of them have beat me, too, so it’s kind of a give and take. Now that the shooting is getting more and more difficult and important for everybody, I think this is where I’ll shine because I get to train more than they do.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.