Kevin Nguyen will compete in his first world championship this week in South Korea.
Kevin Nguyen is ready for his final exam.
Or in this case, a worldly exam.
Nguyen, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who has been in competitive Para shooting only for a few years, is about to compete in his first world championship in Cheongju, Korea. Pressure? Not really. This is all about the process.
Nguyen’s training has sometimes reached seven days a week at Fort Benning in Georgia. There’s the shooting time every morning. The equipment-adjusting time. The gym time.
And now it’s exam time. Nguyen learned that long ago from one of his coaches. He believes it. He lives it. Every day.
“What he taught me was, everything you do in training is a test,” Nguyen said. “Your competition is your test. How well you prepare for that test reflects in how well you train. How well you train reflects how well you do in a competition.
“That’s something that’s very important to me. I put a lot of emphasis in my training.”
Nguyen, 25, who lost his right leg to amputation in 2013 after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on patrol with his Army unit in Afghanistan, is chasing what he calls “the window of perfection.” It is the perfect shot, no different than LeBron James’ perfect offensive move in basketball or a perfectly thrown touchdown pass by Tom Brady in a Super Bowl.
“The window of perfection,” Nguyen said. “It’s that small window where everything is just about right. That’s where you want to be every single time.”
But that window is just so darn tight for a world-class shooter.
“I’m always pushing that window a little bit farther and farther and farther every time,” Nguyen said. “OK, this is perfect, but now I can make it a little bit more perfect. That’s where things start to go back and you’re outside of that window, you’re outside of what you’ve been training for.”
His determination is remarkable. Just seven months after his leg was amputated, Nguyen completed a military weapons qualification, passed an Army physical fitness test and participated in a six-mile road march.
Nguyen is one of three Americans who’ll be making their world championship debuts in the World Shooting Para Sport Championships in Cheongju, which is just 70 miles from PyeongChang, home of the 2018 Paralympic and Olympic Winter Games.
Nguyen was at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs during the Winter Games for a shooting competition, getting a glimpse of Korea on TV, just like everybody else.
“Just watching from afar, I was getting excited just watching Team USA, watching them compete,” Nguyen said. “I’ve definitely gotten in the mood.”
Of the 10 U.S. shooters who’ll compete in Cheongju, seven are experienced Paralympians. Nguyen is one of the three rising stars and Tokyo 2020 contenders who are not. In the midst of all his training, he has also tried to keep a perspective on what is coming up.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” he said. “I’m going to go and have fun. One of the early lessons that I was taught from (four-time Olympic shooter) Jason Parker. He used to tell me, ‘Go out there and do your best. You want to win, but the most important thing is, you need to go have fun.’”
Indeed, this is an American who takes his patriotic pride seriously. It won’t be difficult to spot him in Cheongju. He’ll be looking at that U.S. flag on his uniform proudly, even more so than the number 21 he wore on his water polo cap in his competitive high school days in southern California.
“When I compete, I’m not only representing the Army but I’m also representing America as a whole,” Nguyen said. “I’ve got that American flag on my right shoulder. It makes me feel like I just can’t be beat. I know my teammates are behind me watching, my friends and family are watching back at home.”
Nguyen is on a path toward hitting those targets. He has reached the finals in virtually every competition he has entered. The Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 are clearly on his horizon. And when he doesn’t compete well, Nguyen breaks it down methodically step by step.
That is precisely what happened after he recorded a low score in a world cup competition in March. He examined the gun. Was it operating properly? Were the sights functioning? Was it his aim? Were his mechanics not quite right?
Remember, it’s all in the process.
“Hopefully, when I go to worlds, I keep that same thought process and that same mindset. ‘Hey, this is what the process looks like, this is what the middle (of the target) looks like, you need to stick to it and not break that barrier,’” Nguyen said.
When shooting day arrives in Cheongju, it is clearly a battle of discipline.
“Everyone wants to win, everyone wants to shoot for gold,” Nguyen said. “The only way to get there is to follow your process.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is sports editor of the Cape Cod Times and a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.