Behind the Scenes in Rio
I'm very excited to share this interview with Keith Miller, coach of the North Carolina State University Rifle team and fellow shooter and engineer. One of his NC State shooters took this year’s air rifle Olympic Trials by storm, earning the #1 spot on USA Shooting’s roster for the men’s air rifle event at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Keith got the opportunity to travel to Rio to support Lucas Kozeniesky, giving him a unique look behind the scenes at the Olympics.
A Little Background
Lucas is having a tremendous year so far. He built on a series of world class NCAA rifle scores in October 2015 to a breakout performance at the USA Shooting Winter Airgun Championship in December, which doubled as the first half of the air rifle Olympic trials. Lucas went on to be an NCAA rifle all-American and win the second half of the Olympic trials, finishing in the top three in the finals match each day of the trials. By doing so he earned his spot on the 2016 Olympic team in air rifle.
His Olympic debut on August 8 resulted in a 21st place ranking, which placed him out of contention for the finals match. However, Lucas deserves major kudos - his two international scores events this year, the Rio Olympics and the ISSF World Cup in Bangkok, resulted in identical scores of 622.3 (an average shot value of a 10.37 on each shot) and identical final rank. He shot a 596 integer score at the Olympics, which is only one point under his personal best in competition previously in the season. That kind of consistency and excellence on an international stage is rare, so my hat is off to Lucas!
Beyond Lucas' skill and extraordinary shooting ability, he has a support team that includes his parents, girlfriend, and rifle coach. That support team joined him in Rio for three full days, and Keith shared some of the adventure that came with trying to get to and navigate around Brazil's second most populous city.
Getting To Rio
The men's air rifle event occurred on the third day of the two-week long Olympics. Lucas had three options for traveling, but only one turned out to be viable for him to work around the beginning of his senior year at NC State. Lucas flew to Rio nearly a week ahead of his event, then could choose to either stay until Aug. 15, stay for the duration of the games, or leave the day after his event. Scheduling demands from NC State required Lucas to fly home the day after his event. His support team opted to fly in two days before his match and fly out when Lucas did.
The support team made up of Keith, Lucas' parents, and girlfriend rendezvoused in Miami for a redeye flight to Rio. They took off when Lucas was arriving at the Opening Ceremonies. By the time they landed, the first medal-awarding event of the Olympics was underway. The women's air rifle match went very well for Team USA, with both Ginny Thrasher and Sarah Scherer qualifying for the finals match with scores in the top eight.
"We landed, turned on our phones, and saw that both US women made it to the finals," Keith said. Seeing that the Americans had a chance initiated a flurry of text messages and smartphone live stream attempts by the support team. Lucas had a seat to watch the finals match and he provided updates as the support team waited for luggage and hailed a taxi. The finals started the moment they jumped in the taxi. Between four cell phones refreshing the not-so-"live" stream and Lucas texting from the range, they could keep up with shot-by-shot results.
"We pulled up to the apartment we were staying in by the time the 4th place shooter dropped out," so Keith knew at that point that Ginny Thrasher, a former high school league competitor of Lucas', was going to get a medal - though no one knew at that point if it would be bronze, silver or gold. They grabbed their luggage, paid the cab, "and got upstairs to see she won. We were hooting and hollering!" The support team's journey from northern Virginia, Louisiana, and North Carolina via Miami to Rio ended in celebration.
Ever the coach, Keith noted something about Ginny's finals match, which he followed in detail through the mix of texts, live streams, and NBC results page refreshes. "Her first shot was either a 10.9 or really close to that, followed with a 9.9 or 9.8. She got it out of her system so she could calm down and shoot tens" in the rest of the final. And she certainly did - Ginny won gold in an underdog story that caught the attention of every American watching the Olympics. I'm willing to bet Keith and the others in the taxi will never forget their first hours in Rio! As Keith said, it was the “wildest taxi ride I’ve ever had.”
Staying in Rio
Lucas' support team found housing through a friend of a friend, and it worked out great. One option they considered would have been the equivalent of an AirBNB with rates that seemed to have been increased due to the popularity of the Olympic Games. Happily, a second last-minute housing option came up a few weeks before their trip to Rio.
The apartment they stayed in was about a two minute walk from Ipanema and 10 minutes from the world-famous Copacabana Beach and all the events that took place near there, like Olympic Beach volleyball. Their hostess, an American, did a great job showing them the sights and recommending dinner options so the support team could make the most of the limited time they had in Rio.
What About Zika Virus?
I felt sure there would be some trepidation about the Zika virus after certain public health experts expressed concerns to the point of suggesting they call off the Rio Olympics. But Keith assured me they felt comfortable while they were in Rio. "Our host had the windows open without screens" at their apartment, and she was not worried about Zika. The timing of the Olympics put the Games more during the autumn/winter season in Brazil, so mosquitos were not biting there as much as they might be biting here in America. As Keith put it, "My first mosquito bite of the Olympics happened after I landed in North Carolina again!"
Getting to the Range
It's a little-known fact, but there are only a few coaches who are officially sanctioned to coach at the Olympics. Whereas a typical elite-level rifle shooter might have a primary technical coach and perhaps a sports psychologist or other assistant coach at home, at the Olympics only one coach was allowed per country per gun discipline. So for all five rifle events, there was only one official coach. That meant that Keith and any other coaches (including the operations director of USA Shooting) there to support their athletes in Rio had to buy spectator tickets to the events they wanted to watch. "If you didn’t have [coaching] credentials, you were just a spectator and had to deal with transportation hassles," Keith recalled.
"Everything was great for the athletes. They shut down the interstates to get the athletes everywhere they need to go. The second priority is the televised audience, third is live spectators," according to Keith. The athletes' shuttles had the right of way on highways to get shooters from the Olympic Village in Rio out to the Deodoro shooting ranges about 45 minutes' drive north of the city. It turns out that estimated drive only applied to the athletes. For Keith and the support crew, it would take anywhere from an hour and 45 minutes up to three hours to get from the apartment in downtown Rio out to the range.
"We bought tickets for the men's air pistol event as a dry-run before Lucas shot," Keith explained. They took public transportation on the second day of the Olympics out to the range. That's when it took them three hours. Keith thinks these transportation delays were there for public safety, but they also made it difficult for spectators. "Why attend one of the remote events if it takes hours to get there?" Keith asked. Fair point - and that might explain why only between 50 - 60% of tickets were sold for many Olympic events.
Despite these transportation frustrations, Keith and the support crew stayed positive. "I didn’t go in with too many expectations. I just needed to support Lucas. Anything beyond that was just icing on the cake." Spoken like a great coach!