By Karen Price | Oct. 06, 2016, 2:39 p.m. (ET)
Ginny Thrasher visits the USA House at Colegio Sao Paulo on Aug. 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. 


Ginny Thrasher wasn’t the best shooter on the high school rifle team when she joined, she said, or the best shooter at her local club.

She was always striving to be the best, however, and before long she was the best shooter at her high school. Then she was the best high school shooter in the state of Virginia.

Less than two months ago in Rio de Janeiro, at just 19 years old, Thrasher proved herself the best in the world when she won the Olympic gold medal in 10-meter air rifle. Hers was the first gold medal won by any athlete in Rio.

“When I got to stand on the podium and see the flag raised, honestly, it was pretty unbelievable,” Thrasher said. “I still can’t believe it was me up there. At the same time, it’s an amazing, intense feeling.”

That Thrasher was even in Rio at all was something of a surprise.

The reason why Thrasher wasn’t the best shooter when she joined the West Springfield (Va.) High School rifle team was because she was brand new to the sport. She picked up a gun for the first time to go hunting with her family in the eighth grade, and got into competition shooting during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The former figure skater fell in love with the sport immediately, and began working right away to improve, joining a competitive travel team as a sophomore.

Thrasher went to the National Junior Olympics for the first time in 2014 and won bronze in three-position rifle but placed 44th in air rifle. The next year, she again took bronze in three-position and moved up to 13th in air. 

West Virginia was already recruiting Thrasher at that point, and coach and two-time Olympian Jon Hammond believed she definitely had potential.

Just before she got to West Virginia for her freshman year in 2014, however, Hammond saw something in Thrasher that reinforced his optimism. 

Thrasher had gone to the 2015 national championships and placed second in open air rifle, third in junior air rifle, third in open prone, first in junior prone and first in junior three-position. That qualified her to compete in the 2015 Gabala World Cup in Azerbaijan, where she placed 27th in air rifle. Hammond was there to witness her shooting.

“She had an excellent performance, and it wasn’t just her score and her result, but how she performed under that big a stage in probably the biggest match she’d ever gone to,” Hammond said. “She was very calm, as if she was just there in the practice range doing what she always did. She wasn’t fazed by where she was, and that’s a great thing to have at such an early age. That’s typically something that’s learned after a lot of experience, but she adjusted to it very quickly.”

Still, Hammond didn’t expect Thrasher to crack the top five at West Virginia. The powerhouse program had a lot of depth, and Thrasher was only a freshman. But, as Hammond put it, Thrasher buckled down. 

Describing her as very outgoing and enthusiastic, Hammond said that Thrasher also has the ability to switch into being very focused on the task at hand. She’s driven and motivated and holds herself to a very high standard, he said.

In March, Thrasher became the NCAA air and three-position rifle champion, and she helped West Virginia win its 18th national rifle title. 

Three weeks later, Thrasher was at the three-day long U.S. Olympic Team Trials. It wasn’t until after the first two days, when she held a significant lead, that she let herself dream of the possibilities. 

“It hit me, ‘Oh my gosh, you could be going to the Olympics,’” Thrasher said. “That’s when I had to come back to earth and focus on taking one shot at a time, which is the only way you make it through a big match like that.”

Even after Thrasher became the youngest member of the U.S. rifle team going to Rio, Hammond said, they still weren’t necessarily thinking of a gold medal as much as the opportunity to compete against the very best in the world and how much that would help her for 2020.

Instead, ranked No. 23 in the world, Thrasher set an Olympic record with a score of 208.0 in the final and outshot two Chinese athletes who entered the match with six Olympic medals combined. 

“After it all, a little part of me isn’t surprised,” Hammond said. “She obviously had fantastic results, and although it probably wasn’t expected, she was just following the same process she’s been through the last 12 months. Everything that’s happened has been her pushing boundaries and getting better and better.”

Today, Thrasher is back to the normal life of a college student, having returned to classes at WVU the day after she flew home from Rio. Or, at least as normal as life can be when you return to school an Olympic champion.

“Definitely the reaction in Morgantown has been amazing,” Thrasher said. “I’ve had people coming up to me at all hours asking for selfies and saying hi and congratulating me. It’s really cool.”

West Virginia opened its season last week, and Hammond is looking forward to seeing what the future holds for his newly minted Olympic star. 

“It’s definitely taking me by surprise, just the reaction everyone has had toward her,” said Hammond, who represented Great Britain in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, when Thrasher was just learning to shoot. “You know when you win a gold medal life is going to change a little bit, it doesn’t matter the sport or the country, but now it doesn’t matter where we go. Whether it’s on campus or grocery shopping or outside Morgantown, she’s recognized by people.

“Being in a lesser-known Olympic sport, that’s not something I’m really familiar with, so seeing the people she’s been able to reach through her performance there and the awareness people have of what she’s achieved has been pretty amazing.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.