AMU's Graves Wins Olympic Bronze in Skeet Event
By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service
SYDNEY, Australia, Sept. 26, 2000 Army Sgt. 1st Class James Todd Graves had a slew of good-luck charms working for him Sept. 23 as he became the first U.S. men's skeet shooter since 1984 to win an Olympic medal.
He thought his third Olympic appearance might be the only charm he would need. For extra support, though, his mother and wife Tracy made the trip Down Under, too.
Little did Graves know, however, that Mom managed to remain in the grandstands for the first time ever on his greatest day in the bright sunshine of windy Sydney -- armed with still another bit of superstitious inspiration.
"I've been with him ever since he started shooting at age 11," Tommie Graves explained. "I carted him all over the country when he was shooting in American Trap. This is my proudest moment, except for when he was born. He's my only child.
"But this is the first time I've sat in the stands," she continued. "I'm always peeking from behind the stands because I get so nervous I can't sit. My husband says, 'Why do you want to go to Australia? You won't watch him anyway.' But I made myself watch him.
"I was peeking from behind the stands for the first 25 he shot today, and this little lady from Australia came up to me and I said: 'My son's shooting, and I'm so nervous I can't watch.'
"And she gave me this little koala bear and said, 'This is your good-luck charm.' And then he shot 50 straight. I'm going to frame this bear. She later got an autograph from my son and told him, 'I gave your mother a bear, but I think it's squished flat by now.'
Graves and Army Marksmanship Unit teammate Mike Schmidt both were in medal contention Sept. 22 after firing their first 75 rounds of the two-day competition.
Graves, 37, from Laurel, Miss., obliterated a perfect 25 of 25 clay pigeons and fired two rounds of 24 for a six-way tie for third place at 73. Schmidt, 42, of Eagan, Minn., missed just two targets for a 12-way tie for the overcrowded fourth spot. After two more qualifying rounds Sept. 23, the top six advanced to the finals.
"When you go into something and you know you can't miss, yeah, you get nervous," Graves said of reaching the finals with two perfect rounds of 25 with his Perazzi MX8. "I felt real good today. After my first round, I was moving really well. I was pretty confident going into the last round of the day."
In the medal round, Graves missed a target from station 5, leaving him a one-point cushion for the bronze -- providing that he didn't miss again.
"I let that one target get away from me just a little bit," Graves said. "That upset me a little bit because I thought that put me tied for the bronze. I had to look at the board to make sure, but I still had 6, 7 and 8 to shoot."
That's when U.S. Olympic shotgun coach Lloyd Woodhouse plucked a four-leaf clover from between his feet.
"I was walking along the pavement, looked down and there it was in the grass, just looking at me," said Woodhouse, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant. "A real four-leaf clover, so I thought I'd better pick it up!"
With good-luck charms poised from nearly every conceivable angle of John Maxwell Range, Graves gunned down all his clays from the three remaining stations to capture the bronze with 122 targets.
Ukrainian Mykola Milchev plastered a perfect 150 for 150 targets Sept. 23 for 125 points and the gold medal. He set an Olympic finals record and tied the world mark in the process. Petr Malek of the Czech Republic struck silver with 124 points. Schmidt scored consecutive 24s in the first four rounds, but dropped to a 21 in the fifth to finish tied for 35th place.
"I could not have done this without them. There is no way. I owe everything to the U.S. Army, the Army Marksmanship Unit, my wife and my family," Graves said. "This is the best feeling in the world. I was really happy just to make the final. I was really pumped about that. I told Lloyd, my wife and my mom: 'You know, I can finish no worse than sixth.' So it's a great feeling to come out with a medal.
"It came down to the anchor guy here," Graves said. He won the bronze on the last of eight days of shooting and goes home the Army unit's lone medallist. "I wish everybody from the Army Marksmanship Unit could've won a medal, but at least we brought one home."
The unit's only other bright note was its "adoptee" Nancy Johnson, who won the first gold medal of the Sydney Games in the women's 10-meter air rifle event. Her husband is unit member and fellow Olympian Staff Sgt. Ken Johnson.
Meanwhile, Tommie Graves, still clutching her koala, could barely bear the moment.
"This is just unbelievable," she said. "If I don't have a heart attack over this one, I might just be going to Greece in 2004."
Graves confirmed that he'll attempt to shoot their way to Athens -- Greece, not Georgia.
"I went to the '92 Games," he said. "Then '96 was the Centennial. And this year is the Millennium. So I'd like to go back to where it all started. I had already planned on going for one more. No matter what happened here, I was going again. This just makes it sweeter."
(Tim Hipps is Army Community and Family Support Center's Olympic correspondent.)