Four Olympic medalists highlight USA Shooting’s top athletes for 2012. Recognized for not only their shooting prowess, the six overall Athlete of the Year (AOY) awardees are also honored for their character and unparalleled representation of the shooting sports industry as a whole.
In a sport where athletes distinguish themselves by the slimmest of margins, performances like the 2012 USA Shooting Athletes of the Year Kim Rhode (El Monte, Calif.) and Vincent Hancock (Eatonton, Ga.) radiate beyond comparison. Leaving no doubt, these skeet perfectionists scaled new heights with their dominating performances. Their history-making accomplishments are a testament to the will, resolve and dedication they each have for their craft.
Recognizing the top performers in each discipline for the 2012 season, USA Shooting also showcases two additional Olympic medalists in rifle including Jamie Gray (Lebanon, Pa.) and Matt Emmons (Browns Mills, N.J.). Additionally, Emil Milev (Temple Terrace, Fla.) captures his second straight pistol nomination while Josh Olson (Spokane, Wash.) is the Paralympic Athlete of the Year.
“This year’s top honorees have paved a tremendous path in our sport and their performances in 2012 and throughout their careers have helped carry our organization to new heights,” said Robert Mitchell, USA Shooting, CEO. “We applaud them for their efforts and performances in 2012 and for their overall contributions to the shooting sports.”
Domination and the pursuit of perfection hasn’t become a once-in-a-while thing but rather a full-time occupation for the five-time Olympian Rhode who now owns a U.S. Olympic record of five medals in five consecutive Olympic Games. Her shooting legacy aside, this sport has longed for a transcendent star that can appeal to the masses. All the accolades, medals and awards pale in comparison to the attention she provides to a sport desperate for greater acceptance and understanding.
“After 20-plus years of competing it is still an honor to represent our country,” said Rhode. “I realized a long time ago that without the help of my family, friends, sponsors, and everyone at USA Shooting I would surely not have this honor of Athlete of the Year. It is these people who helped make this possible and I share this honor with all of them.”
On her way to London, Rhode shot a perfect 75/75 in women’s skeet qualification – a new world record – at the 2012 ISSF World Cup in Tucson, Ariz. She followed that with a third-place finish at the London World Cup and a fourth-place finish in Lonato prior to making history at the Olympic Games.
In what coach Todd Graves later described as “auto-pilot”, Rhode won her fifth Olympic medal in convincing fashion by shooting 99/100 and besting the field by eight targets – almost unheard of in this sport of precision considering the Olympic record was previously 93. With her fifth Olympic medal, Rhode became the first U.S. athlete to win an individual medal in five consecutive Olympic Games, moving ahead of such big names as Carl Lewis and Al Oerter. Rhode’s third Olympic gold medal is the most by a female shooter – she also has a silver and a bronze to complete the set. By competing in the Women’s Trap event in London where she finished ninth, Rhode also became the first shooter to compete in all three shotgun events (trap, double trap, skeet).
Two years ago, pursuit of gold was furthest from Hancock’s mind. Mired in a shooting drought and void of desire, Hancock contemplated retirement. It’s good for the sport that his wife, Rebekah, eventually got him re-focused. He’s now as good as he’s ever been as evidenced by his 2012 performance which saw him win his second straight Olympic gold medal. With his drive and competitive desire restored, the world’s best skeet shooters might be lining up behind him for a long time to come.
Elsewhere in 2012, Hancock earned a fourth-place finish at the ISSF London World Cup and then earned a silver medal at the World Cup Finals following the Olympic Games. Domestically, Hancock proved unbeatable this past year, winning the Olympic Team Trials by nine targets and winning the National Championships by four shots. In addition, his strides in establishing the Hancock Shooting Academy with his father, Craig, will leaving a lasting legacy in the sport as he trains and mentors the new generation of shooters.
Hancock, the 11th Olympic shooter to finish first in consecutive shooting events and just the first to do so in skeet, shot a 148/150 for a two-clay advantage. He set an Olympic record in qualifying with a score of 123.
“When he steps out on the field, it’s hard to beat the man,” said Graves. “He’s confident and that’s what it takes.”
“Last year was an amazing comeback year for me,” said Hancock. “It took a lot of hard work, and a lot of prayer but I was able to get back to where I know I belong. Shooting is my passion and God has given me the opportunity to do so much more than just win medals. Moving forward I want to help people understand what this sport has given me and what it can do for them as well.”
Long considered one of the top rifle shooters in the world, Gray finally got the hardware that solidifies that recognition on the sport’s biggest stage this summer in London. After an impressive run of making finals in each of four Olympic events she competed in, almost finally became utmost. She added a fifth-place finish to her growing resume as well in capturing her second AOY nomination in women’s rifle.
“This was a great year for my shooting and it is an honor to be named the women’s rifle AOY,” said Gray. “It is an amazing feeling to accomplish something you dream for and work for every single day; for me that is Olympic Gold. Of course none of these accomplishments would be possible without the support of my husband, family, friends, coaches, USA Shooting and their sponsors.”
Pundits can write Emmons’ Olympic history any number of ways. Some may choose to focus on the gaffes that cost him two Olympic medals and very nearly a third. But the body of work suggests simply that Emmons is one of the best marksmen in history. His three Olympic medals, two individual World Championship medals, and 47 shooting medals overall are a testament to that fact. Becoming just the fourth shooter ever to win individual rifle shooting medals at three or more Games, Emmons will not only receive a 2012 AOY nomination but more importantly the respect he’s earned.
In addition to Olympic bronze, Emmons finished second at the ISSF World Cup in London. Given the challenges of the four years since Beijing, a medal of any color in 2012 was anything but expected. Between 2008 and his bronze-medal victory, Emmons welcomed his first child into the world, battled thyroid cancer and a nagging back injury all of which limited his training abilities.
“It’s always an honor to be chosen as athlete of the year for my discipline and I’m proud to be chosen this year,” Emmons said. “I’d like to sincerely thank all of those who’ve helped me along the way. Nothing is possible without the support of the “team” around me. As I’ve said before, this was an incredibly difficult year and quad for me. I’m really happy things worked out, happy it’s behind me, and I’m looking forward to the future.”
A PE teacher from Tampa, Fla., who found a new shooting life in America, Milev is the lone Pistol AOY nominee for his performances in 2012. Milev finished fourth at the Milan World Cup and finished 13th in his fifth Olympic appearance. The former Bulgarian rapid-fire pistol shooter had put the gun away for good prior to his move to the United States, but connecting with Assistant Pistol Coach Vladimir Chichkov, owner of Pardini USA LLC, helped re-invigorate his career.
“It is an honor and privilege to be nominated for pistol shooter of the year, especially when I know how strong the team is and how hard all of us worked to get to London,” said Milev. “I want to especially thank all those that continue to stand alongside me and helped me become a part of the USA Shooting Team. It wasn’t easy, but it wouldn’t have been possible without their support.”
Olson made history in 2012, not by performance but by participation. In making the U.S. Paralympic Team and competing in London he became the first active-duty soldier to compete in the Paralympic Games. The Sergeant First Class member of the Army’s Marksmanship Unit had hoped for better results than the 28th in Mixed 10m Prone Air Rifle and 12th in the Mixed 50m Prone Rifle, but his mere participation helped pave a road far greater than any medal could have done. The bigger picture, as the U.S. Army so aptly put it after his event, was this: “he has blazed a trail for all wounded warriors who think they may be down–they are not. They can find themselves representing their country once again on the world’s grandest stage for Paralympians.”
“I want to thank my coaches, gunsmiths and all my teammates at the Army Marksmanship Unit for all the wonderful and great support that I’ve received since my career started almost eight years ago,” said Olson. “I also want to thank USA Shooting for all their support to help me get to the London Games.”
Images courtesy Teddy Smith/USA Shooting