How could it end any other way?
From the opening shot of the 2015 ISSF World Cup season, this is the moment American rifle shooting fans have fantasized about: Matt Emmons and Michael McPhail squaring off Thursday in the World Cup Finals in Munich, a 2016 Rio Olympic berth on the line in the 50-meter prone event.
The winner of this rare competition-within-a-competition will have nearly a year to prepare for Brazil; the loser must reload and qualify in the upcoming U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
“It’s a high-pressure situation, very similar to what the Olympics will be like,” said McPhail, 33, a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.
“It’s kind of like `winner-take-all.’
“It’d be nice to avoid the (qualifying trails) next year. Anything can happen there. There are no guarantees by any means. If you happen to (misfire) and have a zero, you’re done."
Shooters first qualify Olympic quota spots for their countries, and then the country determines how those quota spots are filled. Countries can qualify up to two quota spots in each shooting event.
The U.S. earned at least one quota spot for Rio in every rifle and pistol event. The first quota spot will be filled by athletes who win the most points in USA Shooting’s Olympic Points System and pass the threshold of 25 points in the system.
In addition to the 50-meter prone spot coming down to Emmons and McPhail, Americans will also qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team in men’s rapid fire pistol and three-position rifle after this week’s World Cup Final, which is the last event in the Olympic Points System.
Keith Sanderson has already met the criteria to earn his Olympic spot in rapid fire pistol, and even though he is not competing in Munich, his spot will be confirmed once the Olympic Points System comes to a close. Emmons is the only athlete who could qualify via the points system in three-position rifle – though he currently has 23 points and must medal in Munich to pass the 25-point threshold.
But it is the Emmons-McPhail showdown in the prone event that is getting all the attention.
With a four-point lead in Olympic qualifying standings, McPhail will have the inside track Thursday. He’ll be Rio-bound if he finishes higher than Emmons or if Emmons doesn’t medal. Even if Emmons pockets the gold, McPhail can still advance with a second-place finish. There is one scenario where the two could tie on points and force an additional shoot-off later this year. That would happen if Emmons finishes second and McPhail earns bronze.
“It’s going to be very interesting,” said Dave Johnson, USA Shooting’s director of operations. “They’ve really pushed each other. It’s probably the best single-event success we’ve had by two athletes that I can remember. No one has ever performed like this.”
Between them, McPhail (two golds) and Emmons (one gold, one silver) completely dominated the four world cup prone events, turning the tour into an all-American struggle for international supremacy.
Emmons, a three-time Olympian and perhaps the best rifleman of his generation, won the season-opener in Changwon, South Korea, and finished second in Gabala, Azerbaijan.
McPhail, a 2012 Olympian from Darling, Wisconsin, won gold at a world cup event at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in May and then followed with another winning performance in Munich.
“Ft. Benning was a big moment for me,” he said. “My home range is there. My boss is there. I’d never finished how I thought I should there. Just getting it done that day was very special.”
McPhail began target shooting for fun as a teen in Darlington, traveling to competitions around southwestern Wisconsin. He went on to shoot competitively at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and then was recruited into the Army’s marksmanship unit.
Emmons has three Olympic medals but is just as well known for his misses. He had a seemingly insurmountable lead for a second gold medal at the Athens Games in 2004 when he shot at the wrong target. Four years later, a misfire on the final shot cost him another gold, and in London in 2012 he dropped from silver to bronze with a poor final shot. Still, the Brown Mills, New Jersey, native is the United States’ premier shooting star and aims to cap his career in Rio with a fourth Olympic medal.
“If the Olympics were held tomorrow, both of them could win a medal and it wouldn’t surprise anyone,” Johnson said. “Both are very competitive, very skilled, work very hard and have a lot of discipline.
“They have different competitive personalities. I’d say Michael is like the boxer in the ring who’s just going to beat the tar out of you. Emmons is more strategic. He’s very good at getting himself to perform on demand, very good at learning on the fly in competition.”
“The last moment of competition for Michael wasn’t great. But he feels he’s figured something out. I think he’s ready. He’s a ready-to-pounce guy.”
Maybe Emmons summed up the rivalry best after edging McPhail in this year’s USA Shooting National Championships at Ft. Benning.
“Whether it’s me or him, it all depends on the day,” he said.
Prone rifle qualification will begin Thursday at 5 a.m. ET. Finals are scheduled to begin at 7:45 a.m.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.