February 28, 2012

Breathe, Stretch, Aim & Let it Go

By Brian Gargone

When thinking about the greatest athlete yet produced in the United States, who is the first name that comes to mind?  Michael Jordan and his six NBA championships?  Emmitt Smith and his NFL record-setting 18,355 career rushing yards?  Nolan Ryan and his seven career no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts? 

Or how about a man by the name of Lones Wigger?  You don't recognize the name of the man who has won 58 national championships, holds 27 world marks and a record 108 gold medals in competitive rifle shooting?  The obvious choices are the first three, as competitive rifle shooting has been shrugged off as not being a "real sport" in America for more than a century now, but what rifle lacks in the physical requirement, it makes up ten-fold in mental necessity.

Competitive rifle shooters may not be credited on SportsCenter or find their picture on a Wheaties box, but they are athletes whose focus, concentration and steady hand under pressure is required to fire a bullet from a distance of about 33 feet, into a target that is the size of a straw hole.

"It is important for each shooter to find their 'happy place,' where they can calm down and relax before they shoot," said Citadel rifle coach William C. Smith.  "Shooting competitively is different from other sports where adrenaline and energy helps athletes get the edge.  In rifle it is important to do the opposite and learn how to control your energy and control your nervous adrenaline."

Smith, who is currently in his 11th season at the helm, has garnered two Southeastern Air Rifle Conference (SEARC) titles, with his most recent coming last season when his squad downed powerhouse N.C. State in four of their five meetings.

Being at a very demanding school such as The Citadel, where Corps duties, academics and military contracts leave most student-athletes overwhelmed and stressed, Smith has designed his own coaching philosophy, which he believes allows his team to be more relaxed and avoid burnout.

"I just want everyone to know that guns are not evil and that rifle is a lifetime sport," said Smith. "I want these kids to keep shooting after college.  Too many athletes burn out from over-practicing and over-coaching.  I like to let them enjoy it while guiding them and helping them as needed."

Smith, a Charleston native, prides himself on giving his shooters the best equipment and facilities as well as an NCAA schedule chocked full of some of the best competition in the country.  This year's Bulldogs compete against seven of the nation's top-20 ranked teams, including home matches against No. 1 TCU, No. 6 Ole Miss, No. 9 Jacksonville State, No. 14 Air Force, No. 17 Columbus State and conference matches against No. 20 N.C. State.  University of Alaska-Fairbanks, currently ranked fifth, makes their annual 4,372 mile trek to Charleston to open the 2012 home slate.

President Theodore Roosevelt said, "A good shot must necessarily be a good man since the essence of good marksmanship is self-control and self-control is the essential quality of a good man."

There is no doubt that aside from self-control, a steady hand and an insanely precise eye, a rifle competitor, especially at The Citadel, requires self-discipline.  Just ask junior marksman Julie O'Meara, who has consistently shot in the top-four for the women the past two seasons.

"Shooting calms me down when I'm frustrated and I enjoy doing it," said O'Meara, a Gold Star student.  "This sport is different than most because it helps you learn how to control yourself and allows you to regulate your breathing and heart rate."

O'Meara, an Indianapolis, Ind., native who has a four-year Marine contract, managed to carry a 3.76 grade point average with a 26 credit hour workload this past fall while being honored as the first female Drillmaster ever at The Citadel.  She accomplished all of this while traveling and competing in the rifle team's five fall matches.

O'Meara admitted that she has always been great at multi-tasking and organization, but credits her sport as part of the reason why she was able to handle the blizzard of obligations. 

Coach Smith's understanding of the stresses involved at The Citadel is the exact reason why he has graduated so many athletes over his decade of work in the Inouye Marksmanship Center.

"My thought is that by allowing the kids to come in and practice when they have time throughout the day and use the sport as an outlet, they will, in return, finish their education and carry on with the sport for the rest of the lives," said Smith.  "After all, rifle is one of the only sports that is gender, body and weight neutral and can be enjoyed for a lifetime with no restrictions."

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