Virginia Thrasher celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 10-meter air rifle women's finals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Shooting Centre on Aug. 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Virginia Thrasher won the women’s 10-meter air rifle competition with a score of 208.0, an Olympic record. The 19-year-old West Virginia student became the first gold-medal winner of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Throughout the competition, Chinese shooter Du Li was in hot pursuit, never falling more than 1.3 points behind. However, Thrasher never relinquished the lead and earned her place at the top of the podium by a point.
“If you’re focused on, ‘Oh, I might get a silver medal instead of a gold,’ then you’re not really shooting the best that you can,” Thrasher said. “Obviously those distracting thoughts are going to come in, but you have to be very disciplined and that’s where the mental management really makes a difference.”
Thrasher will next compete in the women’s three-position rifle event for the chance at a second gold medal on Thursday (Aug. 11). Exercising her mental toughness, she became only the third U.S. woman to win the opening gold medal of the Olympics and the youngest to do so, but she’s no stranger to historical feats.
Three weeks before arriving at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials this summer, Thrasher was competing in the NCAA championship. She won both her events, air rifle and 3-position rifle, becoming only the second WVU athlete to win two championships in one season.
“I’d like to thank my West Virginia coach, John Hammond,” she said. “His Olympic experiences have really helped me prepare and he will be my coach for the next three years.”
It’s hard to believe that only five years ago, Thrasher was just getting started in the world of shooting. She used to go hunting with her grandfather and her dad, Roger Thrasher, a U.S. Air Force veteran who taught her how to shoot. She did have daydreams about the Games, but they usually involved figure skating, a sport she pursued along with shooting through high school.
“I would go figure skate in the morning and then go to school, and then go to rifle practice afterward,” she said. “Figure skating for me was always a nice outlet, but it was a hobby. I kind of dreamed of going to the Olympics in it but it was a very unrealistic dream.”
Not so with shooting. She loved it from the start, soaking in the 2012 London Games despite not knowing much. But it wasn’t easy at first.
Just two years ago, she placed 44th at the Junior Olympics in air rifle, the event in which she now owns gold. Then came top-three national championship finishes in 2015, her triumphs in the NCAA and now, the Olympics.
Her parents and two brothers all made the journey to see her compete in her first Olympics. Thrasher said her victory provides the perfect opportunity to thank so many people who helped her along the way, from first discovering her love for shooting to listening to the national anthem being played for her in Rio.
“First and foremost, my family,” she said. “They’ve been with me since the beginning and I could never say ‘thank you’ enough to them.”
Rebecca Harris is a student in the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.