Army Coach Consoles Olympian
By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service
BEIJING, Aug. 19, 2008 Army Maj. David Johnson, the Team USA rifle coach, survived another "Matt Emmons moment" here, as Emmons reprised his unsuccessful performance in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
“He did it again!” someone shouted from the grandstand the instant Team USA’s Matt Emmons plummeted from surefire gold to fourth place with a shocking 4.4 on his final shot in the Olympic 50-meter rifle three-position event Aug 17.
Emmons suffered a similar experience at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he accidentally cross-shot at the wrong target with his final bullet and dropped from first to eighth place. On that day, U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program sharpshooter Maj. Michael Anti benefited from Emmons’ misfortune and won the silver medal instead of bronze.
WCAP and Team USA rifle coach Johnson was in Emmons’ corner both times.
“It is difficult to believe that he just did that,” Johnson said. “We did everything we could have to prepare after the event last time, which was pretty traumatizing, really. I think he did a very good job to get ready for this day and this moment. We knew we would be back and be standing right there in position. He had a super nine shots – better than he’s shot in a final – and the last shot was devastating.
“He was coming down on the target," he continued, "and probably reacted a little bit to the crowd reaction, which is just part of sport. You’ve got to deal with it. That’s why they play the games. It just didn’t work. He set the gun off before he was ready, and that’s basically it.”
Emmons confirmed that explanation of one of the worst shots of his life.
“The way I come down into the target, I start above the target at 12 o’clock, and I relax down into the bull’s eye,” Emmons said. “And as I get into the bull’s eye, that’s when I start to get on the trigger. I was coming down just like normal and everything was fine – I actually felt really good about the shot – and as it was coming in and I was getting on the trigger, the gun just went off, and it really surprised me.
“My first thought was, “Oh, that’s not good. I hope that’s in the black.’ And I looked down and it was in the black, but it was a pretty bad shot,” Emmons said.
“Believe it or not, the only thing I was thinking was ‘just calm myself down, do the things you’ve been doing on the past nine shots, and then relax and enjoy the shot,’ Emmons added. “Of course I was a little more nervous than on some of the previous shots, but I thought I was really in control.”
Johnson is a three-time Olympian, once as a competitor and twice as a coach, but he wonders how many of these Matt Emmons moments he can endure.
“I was crushed for Matt, because I know the work he’s put in,” Johnson said. “He lives with me at the Olympic Training Center. We work extremely hard. He’s had the guts to address 2004 every day since then to make sure he had all the skills he needed to deal with this day today, and something didn’t work.”
Johnson then had the unenviable task of approaching his sharpshooter.
“I could hardly speak, frankly,” Johnson admitted. “I wasn’t mad at him, just stunned. I didn’t know what to say.”
U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker finished 22nd in the event and did not qualify for the eight-man final. He was, however, there to witness Emmons’ shot-heard-round-the-world sequel.
“Wow, I don’t even have words for it,” Parker said. “He demonstrated again, just like he did four years ago, that he’s the world’s best shooter. I don’t even have words for it yet. It’s just unbelievable.
“He’s a tough guy and a tough competitor," Parker said. "I just sat back there in awe. I probably didn’t say anything for five minutes.”
Emmons had a 3.4-point lead over his closest competitor in the final with one shot remaining. Just like four years ago, he opened the range for a Chinese shooter to claim the gold. In Athens, it was Jia Zhanbo. In Beijing, it was Qui Jian, 33, a veteran shooter who said he felt unworthy of being among the final group.
“I never thought I could win an Olympic title, because there were so many top shooters out there today,” Qui said of prevailing with a 1,272.5 total. “My winning the gold is, to a large extent, through a little bit of luck.”
Ukraine’s Jury Sukhorukov won the silver medal with a 1,272.4 total. Slovakia’s Rajmond Debevec took the bronze at 1,271.7.
The crowd at the Beijing Shooting Range Hall went wild when Qui thrust his rifle over his head to celebrate winning in such dramatic fashion. Meantime, many folks felt sympathetic after Emmons’ devastating finish.
“Expecting a gold medal and winning it by that much after 129 shots, and then ‘bang,’ gone,” Parker said. “Hopefully, he can come through it the best way possible. He’s a strong guy, and I’m sure he will.”
Johnson certainly hopes so.
“There’s no question, it’s not going to be easy to get past this and deal with it,” he said. “It’s such a roller-coaster in the Games. Three days ago, he won an Olympic silver medal in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen – all the way through the final 10 shots. And he was right on today, too.”
To add even more suspense to the drama, Czech shooter Katerina Emmons consoled Emmons immediately following his cross-shoot in Athens. They got married last year, and Katerina last week won the first gold medal of the Beijing Games in the women’s 10-meter air rifle event.
Katerina was there to support Matt again at the Sunday shoot.
“I told him that it wasn’t meant to be,” she said. “I mean, look at it, he had a 3.3 lead and he shoots a shot that he never shoots. It’s like the last Olympics. It’s just something ridiculous that never happens, and it happens at the last shot in the Olympics, so it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Johnson was appreciative of the opportunity to represent the United States in China, regardless of the outcome of the event.
“We’re privileged to be where we’re at doing this, especially us military members,” he said. “To be able to be here in Beijing doing this is an absolute privilege and honor. It’s not a right. To be able to do this and ‘represent’ is simply an honor.”
Johnson hopes to represent the military again at the 2012 London Games.
“We’re soldiers first, so what the Army has in store for me next, I don’t know yet,” he said. “But I would love to coach for Team USA again in London.”
(Tim Hipps works in the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command Public Affairs Office.)