Two-time Olympian Michael McPhail needed a tiebreaker to get into the final of the men’s 50-meter three-position rifle at the ISSF World Championship in Changwon, South Korea, on Friday.
But the 36-year-old from Darlington, Wisconsin, made the most of that opportunity by earning a bronze medal and securing a spot for a U.S. shooter at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I’m plenty excited but it’s just another day,” McPhail said. “I don’t get too wrapped around things.”
It is the first American medal in this event at the world championship since Thomas Tamas earned a silver in 1994. McPhail’s is the sixth U.S. medal at the 2018 worlds, with three silvers and three bronzes; his is the first in an Olympic event, though.
“I thought I performed pretty well today,” he said. “I performed toward the top end of where I’m at.”
Tomasz Bartnik of Poland won his first world title with 460.4 points and Petar Gorsa of Croatia, the 2016 Baku World Cup winner, took the silver with 457.4. McPhail finished with 446.9 points.
McPhail earned the eighth and final spot in the final with a score of 1,177, earning the tiebreaker nod over Hungarian Istvan Peni 67-62 when qualifying ended just an hour before the final.
The former Army sergeant, who finished ninth at the Olympic Games London 2012 and 19th at the Rio Games in 2016 in prone rifle, earned one of four Olympic quota spots available in three-position rifle at worlds.
The top four placing countries earned those quotas. A quota is an entry in an Olympic event. In shooting, athletes earn quotas for their nation, and each nation determines how athletes will qualify or be selected to fill those quotas.
The 2018 world championship is the first opportunity for shooters to earn quotas for Tokyo, and McPhail is the first athlete to claim one for Team USA.
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McPhail also earned a bronze in 300-meter prone at the 2014 world championship, his only prior medal at this level.
Friday’s final consisted of three series of five shots from the kneeling position, three series of five shots from the prone position and two series of five shots from the standing position. The two lowest-ranked athletes are then eliminated, followed by five single shots standing, with a shooter being eliminated after each shot until the medalists are determined.
McPhail opened strong from the kneeling position, finishing second in the opening segment with a score of 153.5, just a half-point behind leader Hui Zicheng of China. From the prone position — his best position — McPhail maintained his second-place spot with a two-round total of 310.1. Bartnik surged into the lead with 310.8. This came despite the wind suddenly picking up as the shooters finished warm-ups for the prone round.
“I wasn’t exactly sure where I needed to point and click to,” McPhail said. “But they were all fine shots.”
Bartnik and Zicheng clung onto the top two spots in the standing segment, with McPhail trailing 410.1-407.8.
McPhail’s only real slip-up in the final came in the single-shot elimination round that determined the medalists. With four shooters left, he mustered only an 8.9 — his worst shot of the day — and dropped to third, a full point behind Gorsa, who registered a 10.5. The American was unable to make up the difference on the next shot, a 9.4 to Gorsa’s 9.2, settling for bronze.
“I couldn’t shoot a 10,” McPhail said of the elimination round.
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.