Previous failure can sometimes manifest in doubt. For Jamie Gray, it served as motivation recently on the world’s biggest sports stage, the Olympics.
Gray, who lives in Phenix City, Ala., with her U.S. Army marksman husband, vividly remembers the shot in Beijing, China, that cost her a medal in the XXIX Olympiad in 2008. It was foremost on her mind last week during the 50-meter 3-position rifle competition in London.
“I had trouble with that last shot in Beijing in the final,” Gray said. “I saw a medal slip away on that last shot. I did a lot of work the last four years trying to work on that last shot in every final like it was the last shot in the Olympics. My ninth shot wasn’t great in the final, an 8.9 I think.”
In the 3-position small-bore competition, shooters fire 20 shots each from the prone, standing and kneeling positions with a top score of 10 points per shot in the preliminaries. In the final round, 10ths-of-point increments are added, which means a perfect shot scores 10.9 points.
Obviously, Gray’s final shot at the London Games would either prolong her disappointment or vault her into the shooting competition spotlight.
“I thought, ‘I’m not letting this happen again,’” she said. “So I buckled down and made a great shot.”
When the 10.8 flashed on the scoring screen, Gray pumped her fist in celebration. The gold medal was with an Olympic record score of 691.9 points to boot.
“I was so excited to see that 10.8,” she said. “That’s almost as good as it can get.”
Gray’s journey to the gold medal began many years ago in her hometown of Lebanon, Pa., where her father introduced her to BB gun competition when she was 8. It soon became obvious competition was Jamie’s passion, especially when it involved her brother, Mike Beyerle.
“My dad was really interested in shooting,” she said. “He did a little bit of shooting himself. He started my brother in BB gun when he was 9. He’s three years older than me.
“I’ve always wanted to do what my brother has done. He was a Boy Scout. I wanted to be a Boy Scout. Everything he did I wanted to do. I guess it’s ‘little girl syndrome,’ where every little girl wants to do what their older sibling does. I was very competitive at a very young age. I not only wanted to do what he did, I wanted to beat him at what he did.”
Mike eventually pursued a career in computer science, but Jamie stuck with the shooting sports, moving into the air rifle and small-bore competitions as a teenager. Her coach back then had a connection with the USA Shooting Team and knew about the development team for young shooters.
“My coach knew about the path to the Olympics,” she said. “Ever since I started shooting international style when I was about 15 years old, it’s been a dream to go to the Olympic Games and bring home a medal. I put so much time into it. As a junior, I shot about 350 days a year. I was definitely motivated. I also played soccer, softball and basketball, so I was a pretty active kid. It definitely paid off.”
Gray had success as a junior shooter and realized she had the talent to compete. She knew hard work would put her into a position to realize her dream. She decided to go to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks because it had a good rifle team, and then she moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., to the Olympic Training Center. After she married Staff Sgt. Hank Gray in 2011, the couple moved to Phenix City where he is assigned to Fort Benning, Ga.
Jamie, who had been winning medals in international competitions since 2002, knew fairly early in the competition that she had a slot on the Olympic team by qualifying through the points system after successful World Cup matches in 2010 and 2011. Although she had already qualified, she shot with her teammates just for the practice.
Although she wasn’t an Olympics rookie, the 28-year-old Gray said the pomp and pageantry of the whole Olympics experience is something to behold.
“The Olympics is such an amazing time,” she said. “When you walk into Olympic Village, it’s breathtaking. This is the biggest sports stage there is, and you’re there competing in it. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Gray’s confidence was up going into the London Games after several successful competitions. She realized it would come down to mental preparation for her to shoot her best.
“I started meeting with my sports psychologist, Sean McCann, before each match,” she said. “We were talking about what was necessary to be successful the next day. One thing that’s really easy to get into in shooting is what I like to call ‘being on the defense.’ You’re kind of protecting something you don’t have, and you start making mistakes. I didn’t want my match to be like that. I wanted to be aggressive enough, but not too aggressive, of course. Sean and I talked about that and that is how I had been successful in the past.
“I drew up my match plan that night, what I wanted to do performance-wise. I wasn’t thinking about scores, but how was I was going to approach the wind, how I wanted to approach the match. I followed my plan to a T. I couldn’t ask for a better way.”
She started the competition with a 98 in the prone position, which wasn’t up to her expectations. She followed with a perfect 100 in the standing position.
“When we got to standing, I was feeling really good,” Gray said. “There was a Russian girl shooting right next to me, and I could see her (scoring) screen. She started off with 100. I said, OK, if she can shoot 100 in this wind, I can too. It just motivated me to see her shoot that well. I was told I had the best follow-through I’ve ever had in my life, which is so necessary to shoot well. It was awesome to be able to perform.”
Next came the kneeling position and her chance for a spot on the medal stand.
“I was down four points going into kneeling,” she said. “I knew I had to perform. I was starting to get into a little bit of a freak-out mode. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a match of a lifetime.”
Gray took a break and sought some sage advice and inspiration from her coach, Major Dave Johnson.
“He told me to watch the wind and be smart,” she said. “He kind of relaxed me. I just tried to perform a good kneeling round, not worrying about the score, just thinking about the performance and what I needed to do. That’s exactly what I did.”
Not only did Gray set the Olympic record in the final, she set an Olympic record in qualifying with a score of 592.
Since returning to Phenix City, Gray has been very busy with interviews and well-wishers. Her hometown of Lebanon honored her with a celebration this week.
“The media has been great,” said Gray, who joins Kim Rhode and Vincent Hancock as USA gold medal winners in shooting. “It’s kind of exciting for me to be able to tell my story and tell about our sport. Shooting tends to not be a mainstream sport. It’s really great to get it into the public’s eye and be an ambassador for our sport. You know, if one young kid sees this and wants to be a shooter, it’s well worth it. We’re trying to grow our sport, and I’m happy the media is there for us to tell our story.”
Gray, who is one of the coaches for the Columbus State University rifle team, said she will take a break before resuming her training for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I thought I could retire after this year, but it’s addictive,” she said. “You get there and you want more, so I’ll go another four years. There’s nothing that compares to the Olympic experience.”
Especially when you bring home a gold medal.
Images courtesy of Courtesy of U.S. Army IMCOM/Tim Hipps