The stage has been set for the Olympic-style shootoff. At the completion of the initial 120 round course of fire, the top eight competitors return to the firing line to fire ten additional shots in the standing position. These shots are scored in tenths of a point, enabling a shooter who may not have finished in the top three to shoot well under pressure in the shootoff and medal.
I am currently in fourth place after the completion of the full course three position match for the National Junior Olympic Rifle Competition, with a score of 1128 out of 1200 possible points. As I stand at the "wailing wall", otherwise known as the score board, I nervously await the final few scores to be posted. There are some quality shooters, and their scores may knock me out of the top eight. "I'm not really happy with my score," I ponder. "Why was I almost twenty points below average?"
"Whew!" I say to myself after all the scores are posted. "Still in fourth - within striking distance."
For the next half hour, I busy myself setting up my rifle for the standing position, double checking each setting to ensure I don't have a self-enduced case of stupidity. All the while, spectators, competitors who did not place in the top eight, and people touring the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs begin to fill the area behind the ready line. Some carry spotting scopes to follow the performance of their friends on each shot.
A friend of mine, Nick Meyers, sets up his spotting scope directly behind my firing point, and is designated an "unofficial scorer". His job is to give a rough estimate of the value of each round that I fire to the scorer to update on the overhead computer screen, adding to the drama.
The line officer welcomes the spectators, reviews the shootoff procedures with the competitors, and reminds the onlookers to respect the concentration of the shooters. Finally, the line officer states, "Shooters to the line. Your ten minute preparation period begins now." "At last," I think to myself. "Enough waiting around." I button all five buttons on my leather shooting coat, pick up my rifle, and get into position, letting the blood settle in my legs. I pick up the rifle and find my natural point of aim is a little to the right. "No problem," I say to myself, as I subconsciously move the toes on my left foot to the left, bringing me back on target. I rest for a minute or two, and then dry-fire five times to settle down and get into focus.
Ten minutes seems like an eternity. Finally, the line officer states, "Your preparation period has ended. Your five minute sight-in period begins now."
I select a single round of RWS R-50 out of my loading block and push it into the chamber of my rifle with my thumb. I carefully close the bolt, pick up the rifle off of the offhand stand and settle into my standing position.
"Relax," I tell all of the muscles in my body, as I center the front and rear sights on the target. Without any lapse of time, my mind fires first, sending the message to my trigger finger to do its job of applying just over one ounce of pressure to the two stage match trigger.
I don't even notice the report of the rifle or the crack of the bullet as it passed through the paper of the target at a distance of 50 meters. "Not too bad," I say to myself. Once again, my hand has a mind all of its own as it automatically makes the proper sight adjustments. After five more sighters, all landing inside the nine ring, I feel ready for the shootoff. The line officer announces, "Cease firing. Your one minute rest period begins now."
"Time to relax and concentrate," I think. The pressure is beginning to build, and I feel sweat beginning to soak my shirt under the two sweatshirts that provide pulse-deadening padding under my coat.
"Shooter, this is your first record shot. Load." Down the firing line, each of us select one round, and eight bolts are carefully closed.
"Attention. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Start."
I pick up my rifle, and my heart rate skyrockets. "Settle down," I think to myself. "Seventy five seconds is pleanty of time." The sights begin to settle on the black of the target and the recoil of the rifle actually startles me. "Oh no!" is the thought that flashes through my mind as I peer into the spotting scope. "How did I pull that one off," I murmur to myself as I see a 10.3 in the center of the target. I didn't think it was that good of a shot. "Good follow through," I say to myself with a smile. "A little luck never hurts, either."
"Cease fire. Scorers, announce the score of the shooter on your point."
As they go from the leader, positioned at the left of the line, to the right, the scores vary by several points. The crowd behind us is really getting into this. At the announcement of each ten, they enthusiastically cheer and whistle. Competitors that shot scores in the eight range and below are rewarded with a chorus of "boos", chuckles, and several comments comparing shooting abilities to blind grandmothers.
"Shooters, for your second record shot... Load."
"Attention. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Start..."
That was over four years ago, and I still remember it as though it
were yesterday. I finished those ten shots standing with a score of
93.0, which was not too shabby for my second shootoff performance
yielding a fourth place, but disappointing since this was my final year
of eligibility for this invitational rifle match. I can say that I
learned from this experience, especially on how to handle pressure in a
shootoff. (The next time I competed in a shootoff was in air-rifle on
the same range, finishing with a score of 102.0.) The one lasting
implication of this long-ago shootoff was that it was a keystone in my
later shooting career, a constant reminder that I am only getting
better, and I am still considered a youngster in this sport at the
tender age of 23.