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Smallbore Shooters Aim For Five Rio Spots At Upcoming Olympic Trials

By Scott McDonald | March 30, 2016, 11:44 a.m. (ET)

Sarah Beard competes in women's three-position rifle at the Gabala Shooting Club at the ISSF World Cup Rifle/Pistol/Shotgun on Aug. 13, 2015 in Gabala, Azerbaijan.

The 2016 U.S. Olympic Shooting Team is coming together, and five more athletes will add their names to that squad at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Smallbore beginning April 1 in Fort Benning, Georgia.

“At NCAAs it was stressful, but this will definitely be the most intense,” said women’s rifle contender Sarah Beard, 24, who won two national championships at Texas Christian and placed fourth in three-position rifle at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

The trials, which include smallbore rifle and pistol events, run through April 8, with three consecutive days of competition for each event. Each day’s qualifying scores and points will be added to each respective competitor’s score for a cumulative total. Nominations to the U.S. Olympic Team will be given after the final in each event.

Sixty-one athletes will compete for the five open positions, one each in women’s three-position rifle and sport pistol, and men’s prone rifle, rapid fire pistol and free pistol. Only shooters who have earned a 2016 Rio qualifying score will be eligible to compete in this team trial. Those who don’t qualify will have another shot at the air trials in June.

Michael McPhail has already secured a spot on the Olympic team in men’s prone rifle and Matt Emmons has a spot on the team in men’s three-position rifle. Keith Sanderson has already landed the spot for men’s rapid fire pistol. All three men clinched these spots via the USA Shooting Olympic Points System in 2015. Team USA earned two Olympic quotas each in men’s prone rifle and men’s rapid fire pistol, and the athletes who will join McPhail and Sanderson will be determined in Fort Benning.

The largest field of competitors at the smallbore trials will be in the women’s three-position rifle with 16 athletes aiming for one open spot. Olympians Amanda Furrer and Sarah Scherer are two of the favorites to win. Scherer temporarily left the sport after two back surgeries and some thought she may not return, but she came back and finished seventh at the recent world cup in Bangkok.

Beard, Amy Sowash and Virginia Thrasher are also expected to push for the spot in three-position rifle.

Beard said that although she felt her trials in 2012 personally went well, she’s matured as a shooter and better grasps the mental aspect of the sport.

“My skill level is better now and my comfort level is much better,” Beard said. “I have a different mindset this time going into the Trials than I had in 2012.”

Men’s rapid fire pistol is the smallest field with only four competitors vying to compete alongside Sanderson in Rio. Brad Balsley, a 2015 Pan American Games gold medalist, and five-time Olympian Emil Milev look to be the top two competitors vying for the final spot.

The toughest event may be the men’s free pistol. James Henderson earned the country quota for his fourth-place finish at the 2015 world cup at Fort Benning. The fierce competition for the Olympic team spot will also have Olympians Brian Beaman, Nick Mowrer and Jason Turner as well as rising star Will Brown, who finished fourth at the Munich World Cup.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t a competitive group of guys,” said Brown, who comes from a family of shooters and is looking to make his first U.S. Olympic Team. “We’re all in it to win it.”

Brown said the competition would be tough at the trials, but not any more challenging than world cups or national championships. The 24-year-old Brown will compete in the free pistol event at trials (although some say air pistol is his specialty). He just missed the cut for the 2012 Olympic team, and said time and experience has prepared him for the trials.

“In four years I’ve had a lot of time to gain experience,” Brown said. “I’ve shot a lot more and matured as a competitor.”

Even though the free pistol has been around since the 1896 Olympic Games, no U.S. men’s shooter has medaled since Frank Green won silver at the 1964 Games.

A pair of Olympians will be in a showdown in the women’s sport pistol. Sandra Uptagrafft, a 2012 Olympian who won silver at the 2015 Pan Am Games, makes her return after injuring her shooting hand last fall. Her toughest competition will most likely be 2008 Olympian Brenda Silva, who placed sixth at the Pan Am Games.

Pre-event training begins April 1 and competition starts the following day in men’s prone rifle, women’s three-position rifle and men’s free pistol.

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.

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