For two Paralympic shooters competing in their first Paralympic Games, this day couldn’t have arrived soon enough.  As Eric Hollen (Colorado Spirngs, Colo.) and Josh Olson (USAMU/Spokane, Wash.) set course for the London Paralympic Games today, this date has been circled on the calendar for as long as they can remember.

The paths at which each of them has found their way to London are as different as the firearms they choose to shoot, but together they represent triumph over tragedy, new beginnings and ability over disability.

USA Shooting history was made in January with the naming of the 2012 Paralympic Games Team.  For the first time ever, USA Shooting will be sending athletes to compete in the Paralympic Games after having formed a Paralympic division after the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The 277 American athletes named to the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Team will compete in 19 sports contested throughout the 11 days of competition. The sports are archery, boccia, cycling, equestrian, goalball, judo, powerlifting, rowing, sailing, shooting, sitting volleyball, soccer seven-a-side, swimming, table tennis, track and field, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair fencing and wheelchair tennis. At the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, Team USA claimed a total of 99 medals, finishing third overall.

Hollen and Sergeant First Class Olson will serve as the torchbearers for the establishment of disabled athlete’s participation in the shooting sports.  Hollen will shoot pistol while Olson will compete in the rifle events.

“You can’t ask for any two finer people to represent not only USA Shooting but all the shooting sports, the shooting industry and the country,” said National Paralympic Coach Bob Foth. “These guys are just first class and as good as it gets.  Their stories are amazing and I expect them to gain attention through their performances as well.”

Hollen, a former U.S. Army Ranger in the 2/75 Ranger Regiment, suffered a life-altering injury on his horse farm in Tennessee. It took Hollen awhile to gain his a new lease on life by seizing the opportunity to compete in the sport of shooting.

“I am so proud of Eric and all he has accomplished,” said Foth. “He has taken advantage of the unique opportunities available as an OTC Resident Athlete-the amazing support and intangibles that come with being in a high performance environment with focused athletes. Eric came to us as a fairly instinctive shooter and over the last several years he’s done an amazing job of becoming a much more prepared shooter and has a really strong plan going into London.”

“I’ve been ready for three weeks, but I couldn’t do anything about it until today,” Hollen said. “This has been 10 years in the making and it’s an awesome opportunity to represent my country. I shoot with the best able-bodied athletes in the world here at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and I have the opportunity to now go and win my matches and that’s what I’m setting out to do.”

At the 2011 IPC World Cup Sydney, Hollen won a bronze medal in P4 Mixed 50m Free Pistol.  He followed that by shooting a 557 in P1 Men’s 10m Air Pistol, to tie three shooters and move on to the finals where he fired 98.1 points to secure a silver medal.  His performance in Sydney eventually proved to be the deciding factor in his Paralympic nomination.

Hollen will compete in the Men’s P1 10-meter Air Pistol event on Thursday, August 30 and will compete again one week later on September 6 in the 50-meter free Pistol competition.

“To me, the concept of wearing “USA” on my back means that I have found my way through the fear factor,” Hollen said previously.  “I have found a new sense of self and I have leveled the playing field from Special Operations soldier to Paralympic athlete.  I have eclipsed all previous expectations of who I wanted to be and created a new pinnacle that exceeded all previous achievements and I did it without the use of my legs.  My worst case scenario has become a vehicle of opportunity that I could not have ever reached without the devastating loss that had to occur. The darkest moment did not last and I found the light at the end of the tunnel through academics and athletics.”

While on patrol with his unit (101st Airborne division third brigade 1/187) in Iraq in 2003, Olson was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade resulting in the loss of his right leg from the hip down.  After spending 18 months at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Olson received his assignment to the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit in Fort Benning, Ga.  This is Olson’s first Paralympic Games nomination-he just missed the threshold in 2008, but has been a member of the National Paralympic Team for five years.

“I’m definitely more mentally and physically prepared now,” said Olson in a March interview with USA Shooting. “Coming so close in 2008 and getting to where I am now has definitely pushed me and drove me to be successful in 2012.

“A lot of the guys I’m competing against have been there before and I haven’t, so I just want to go there 100 percent focused on what’s going on and be able to take the time at the range that I need even if its sitting out there all day and watching the wind conditions,”  Olson admits. “I want to be able to maximize my training and all my mental energy and focus in on what I’m doing.”

Olson is involved in the TROOPS F1RST Foundation and has participated in “Operation Proper Exit” where he assists other vets recovering from injuries sustained during combat by visiting their place of injury in Iraq.   In honor of his service and dedication to the country, Olson was awarded the Purple Heart from former President George W. Bush.

At the 2011 IPC World Cup in Sydney, Australia, Olson finished sixth in R3 (Mixed 10m Air Rifle Prone SH1).  Earlier in 2011, he finished seventh in R6 (Mixed 50m Rifle Prone) at the IPC World Cup Alicante and eighth in R6 at the IPC World Cup USA.

“Josh is a very thoroughly prepared shooter and has really taken advantage of the opportunity at the Army Marksmanship Unit and the excellent coaching and support down there,” said Foth.  “He’s motivated and excited about this opportunity.”

Olson will begin competition on Saturday, September 1 in the 10-meter Air Rifle Prone event followed by the Smallbore (.22 caliber) 50-meter Rifle Prone on Tuesday, September 4.

Despite his intense focus, Olson won’t forget the power of the moment and the trials he overcame to give him this chance. When he allows himself to envision what walking into Opening Ceremonies will be like, Olson declares:  “Probably going to be like nothing I’ve ever felt before, overwhelming maybe at times.  But it’s still going to feel really good given all the time I’ve spent on the range, in physical therapy and trying to get my prosthesis tuned right.  All that patience, time, blood, sweat and tears is all going to accumulate to that moment.  I get to go there and wear the Red, White and Blue, and show the world what America is all about.”

Image courtesy USA Shooting

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