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Kentucky blue turns to gold for Team USA rifle

By James Franks, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication | July 25, 2021, 12:58 p.m. (ET)

Will Shaner holds his rifle aloft after winning gold in the men's 10m air rifle at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Blue is the dominant color in the red, white and blue of Team USA’s air rifle team. And it’s clearly paying off.

Kentucky’s Mary Tucker (Kentucky Rifle) and Will Shaner (Kentucky Rifle) represent half of the U.S. air rifle team during the 2020 Summer Olympics. On Sunday, Shaner won the men’s 10-meter competition, setting an Olympic record and posting the first gold medal won in the event for the United States. Tucker placed sixth in the women’s air rifle final on Saturday. 

The two first qualified in 2020. Like many Olympians, the postponement of the Tokyo Games due to COVID-19 tested their patience. They’ve been on a long journey.

Kentucky rifle coach Harry Mullins first discovered Tucker while on a recruiting trip in Germany.

“We were paying attention to the results here (in Germany) and our U.S. Nationals, which  happen to overlap, and this name kept on popping up and we thought, ‘Wow. Who’s this Mary Tucker?’” Mullins said. 

Tucker worked her way up through the ranks at a fast pace and posted memorable career marks at Kentucky in smallbore (597) and air rifle (600).

“I think it is largely attributed to her work ethic,” Mullins said. 

The coach first saw Shaner before he was teenager during a trip to the Olympic Training Center, he said.

“I like to walk to the line and see (people shooting) and he was a little bitty guy out there just grinding it out and working,” said Mullins, who watched Shaner post career marks of 595 and 599 in smallbore and air rifle, respectively. 

Both Tucker and Shaner spent a large amount of time learning how to become better shooters. Tucker has an unorthodox approach. 

"I taught myself to shoot precision in my garage, and I've just kind of been running with that ever since," Tucker told WDRB. "I YouTubed a lot."

When Tucker and Shaner first joined the Kentucky rifle team, Mullins said he was impressed with how hard they worked and he was excited to have both of them as part of the team. 

“They don't give into the emotional content when things aren't going quite the way they want,” he said. “Their drive and determination to make each shot the best that it can be and that they're doing that for Big Blue Nation and University of Kentucky is very exciting. Once we had them together at the same time, that was even more exciting.”
 
Before COVID-19 postponed the Olympics, Kentucky was set to host the 2020 NCAA rifle championships. The event was canceled before winners could be determined, a decision that rattled Tucker and Shaner. 

“Right when those got canceled, I couldn’t look at my equipment for about two months without getting really upset,” Tucker told Kentucky Kernel. “It was a very strange feeling. I love this sport but during that certain time I hated it."

Shaner was equally crushed, telling Kentucky Kernel, “It was heartbreaking for about a week or two, but I figured I had two decisions: I could either dwell on it like it’s over, or I could just kind of wait it out, kind of keep training, wait that extra year and finish out strong.”

As early results suggest, the wait was worth it.

While the two are in Tokyo, a large fanbase is cheering them on in Kentucky. 

“The city of Lexington is 110% behind them,” Mullins said. 

Before they left for the Olympics, Mullins gave each of them the advice to “be the best that (they) can be on that day and enjoy the moments,” he said. 

Clearly, that message was received.

 

James Franks, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

James Franks is a journalism student at Arizona State University. This story is part of a collaboration between the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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