How the Rifle Olympic Trials Work, Part 2
...Continuing from How the Rifle Olympic Trials Work, Part 1
How does a shooter get to the Olympics?
The athletes who attend the Olympic Trials are typically members of the USA Shooting national team or national junior team. Shooters can be invited to be a member of the team through performing well in national-level USA Shooting matches like the Junior Olympics, NCAA's, National Championships, Rocky Mountain Rifle Championships, and Selection Matches. Once a shooter makes the team, they can shoot internationally and earn a minimum qualifying score (MQS) in an International Shooting Sports Federation (ISSF) match to make them eligible to compete at the Olympic Trials.
The Olympic Trials are one way to get to the Olympics. The other way is to automatically qualify.
How to Qualify for the Olympics
If I didn't emphasize it enough earlier, it's hard to qualify for the Olympics. The athletes who do qualify are seeing the result of years of hard work and extraordinary mental toughness. A shooter can qualify for the Olympics either by earning enough points through the "Olympic Points System" or by qualifying at the Olympic Trials match. It used to be that the Trials were the only way to qualify. Talk about match pressure - the only way to make it to the Olympics was to perform well during a two to three day period of time. USA Shooting has switched over to a points-based system similar to how other sports select their teams.
A point system was used again given athletes the opportunity to earn points by virtue of their finishes at 2015 World Cups, World Champs, World Cup Final and designated selection competitions. After the 2015 World Cup Final, the athlete with the most points who meets or exceeds the point threshold of 25 points (for Rifle/Pistol) and 30 points (for Shotgun) and has earned at least one medal at a 2015 World Cup competition, World Cup Finals (rifle & pistol only) or World Championships (shotgun only), was nominated to the Olympic Team depending upon quotas earned in each event.
At the end of the 2015 World Cup season, the person with the most points qualified for the first (or in some cases only) Olympic team slot in the rifle and pistol events. Matt Emmons earned a guaranteed spot on Team USA in men's three-position rifle back in September, and Michael McPhail earned his spot in prone. For all other Olympic hopefuls, if there is still a spot at the Olympics for them, the Olympic Trials are the way to the Games.
The format of the trials has changed over the years, but the purpose hasn't. At the end of the match, the top one or two shooters (again, that number depends on quota slots and automatic qualifications) will punch their ticket to the Olympic Games. This year, the smallbore Olympic Trials took place at the Pool International Shooting Complex in Fort Benning, Georgia. For three days in each event, shooters shot a qualifying match then a finals match. For example, in the women's three position match, for three days all the competitors completed a sixty shot match. The shooters who finish in the top eight on each day made the finals match for that day, and their score in the finals was added to the cumulative qualification score to determine an overall winner of the one slot to go to the Olympics.
The benefit of this format is that the athletes are put under pressure for a sustained period of time. If they perform well in that environment, then perhaps they will perform well at the Olympics, arguably the highest-pressure match there is, since it only comes around once every four years. From the match program, it appears there won't be finals matches at the upcoming air rifle and pistol Olympic trials. Three days of matches per event - so that will be interesting to keep an eye on! To translate that match program, WAR=women's air rifle, WAP=women's air pistol, MAR=men's air rifle, and MAP=men's air pistol.
Matches to Follow in 2016
These matches still need to be shot, and will feature a lot of the same shooters who will be in the Olympics:
- Air Gun Olympic Trials - rifle and pistol events, part 1 happened earlier this year and part 2 will happen June 3 - 5, 2016 at Camp Perry, Ohio.
- ISSF World Cup - rifle matches in May in Munich and in June in Granada will feature many of the Olympic athletes as a sort of preview of the Games.
- Olympic Games - the shooting events will take place August 6 - 14 at the Deodoro Shooting Centre in Rio de Janeiro. For rifle events, women shoot on August 6 and 11 and men shoot August 8, 12, and 14. Here's the schedule.
And they just finished up an Olympic Test Event at the shooting center in Brazil. This year is undoubtedly a big one for the shooting sports, with lots of exciting events to follow.
Conclusions - Olympic Dreams
A rifle shooter has to shoot world class scores over a prolonged period of time at national-level and international events, and in the Olympic Trials to make their Olympic dreams come true. Many shooters put their careers or academics on hold for the chance to train and qualify for the one or two slots available every four years. Because of this demanded sacrifice and the limited quota slots available, Olympic rifle shooters are a rare breed. Fortunately, the shooting sports community is small and tight-knit. If you are involved for long enough, odds are good you will meet an Olympian. These women and men have my utmost respect, and I am looking forward to cheering on Team USA this August.