Fractions of an inch changed Michael McPhail’s focus. Not that the Olympic shooter needed to adjust his sites. He just had to refine his preparation, and that included telling his family they can’t go watch him in the Olympic Games this summer.
McPhail has a shot at redemption, and an Olympic medal, when he competes in the 50-meter rifle prone at the Rio de Janeiro Games this August. McPhail qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team last summer when he won the ISSF World Cup in Munich, Germany.
The London 2012 Olympic Games still linger in McPhail’s memory. He tied for eighth place in the qualifying round and went to a shoot-off for the last spot in the finals. He missed the cut by three-tenths of a point — or just a hairline on his shots.
“I remember the feeling. I didn’t make the final, and that’s not something I want to make a habit of,” McPhail said. “I thought I shot well in London.”
McPhail began training for this venture in life long before he knew it. He wore out his first BB gun by age 5. He took a hunter’s safety course with his father at age 12. From then on if he had free time, he hunted. He began competitive shooting in high school so he could become a better hunter, giving up basketball along the way.
The Darlington, Wisconsin, native went to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and became a member of its shooting team. He continually got more accurate and started winning all of his events.
“It was something I was naturally good at,” McPhail said. “I kind of got a little better each time I went out.”
McPhail said he first got Olympic aspirations while watching the Atlanta 1996 Games on TV. He had no idea what sport he wanted to compete in, though.
While in college, he shot against some of the best in the country. Some of them were in the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, and they convinced McPhail to join their ranks. So he became a soldier.
McPhail left Milwaukee to fly out to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. While in the Milwaukee airport, he watched a shooting event in the 2004 Athens Games on a TV set before boarding his plane.
“That was kind of cool,” McPhail said. “Getting to watch it prior to flying was pretty neat.”
He completed basic training and went to the Army Marksmanship Unit, where he has been ever since. Though the United States was involved in two wars, McPhail’s number never got called for combat. His only deployments have been to shooting competitions, and he said the Army has graciously accommodated his travel and competition schedule.
McPhail left Georgia on Saturday headed for Bangkok, Thailand, to compete in the season-opening ISSF World Cup. The elimination rounds for the men’s 50-meter rifle prone will be Friday, and the championship will be Saturday.
McPhail said he has tried other competitions including 10-meter air rifle and 50-meter free. He said the 50 prone turned out to be his best event, and that’s where he’s channeling all of his training this year.
He also said his family is off limits for the Games in Rio this August.
“It was hard telling my family that I didn’t want them to go to the Olympics this year,” he said. “But this is a business trip, and I’m going down there to win. I don’t want all the distractions that can go with it. Logistically it’s hard to see them, but you’re constantly worried about where they’re staying and what they’re doing. We’ll celebrate when I get back, but this is about business. I want to bring back the gold medal.”
McPhail said he starts his day by taking his 5-year-old daughter to school. He gets to the firing line around 8 a.m. and shoots for two hours. He takes a 30-minute break and shoots for another hour. He said he shoots about 100 rounds a day in training.
“I do the best I can each day,” said McPhail, who’s 34. “I’m not looking any farther down the road than August.”
Now that his sights are completely in focus, the sergeant first class aims to bring Olympic gold back home to the United States.
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.