How to Get Your Child (or Yourself!) into Olympic Rifle Shooting, Part 1: Find a Good Rifle Club

How to Get Your Child (or Yourself!) into Olympic Rifle Shooting, Part 1: Find a Good Rifle Club

The Rio Olympics ended a little less than a month ago, so now is the perfect time to start thinking about the next summer Olympics in Tokyo 2020! Side note: in saying that, I definitely feel like the Head Elf after Christmas Day in the Will Ferrell movie Elf: "It's time to start preparations for next Christmas!" 

Growing up as an air rifle and smallbore rifle shooter, I wanted to shoot for Team USA at the Olympic Games, but my career didn't take me that far. I've written about this before, so I invite you to link hop on this blog to find out more about that. The Olympic bug bites nearly every young air rifle or smallbore rifle shooter at one time or another. If you would like your child to learn how to shoot in the way that could get them qualified for the Olympics, the first thing I'd recommend is to find a good rifle club that supports junior shooting, specifically precision rifle shooting. For me, that was the Acorns Junior Rifle Club and the NOVA (Northern Virginia) Sharpshooters.

To find out more about getting into Olympic-style junior rifle shooting, I spoke with one of my former coaches, Tom Pike. Tom is now at the helm of one of the biggest junior rifle clubs in the US, and he shared a lot of wisdom about how to find a growing club and why shooting in such a club can take a junior shooter from being a "good shot" to being Olympic-level "great".

Tom Pike and the NoVA Sharpshooters

Tom Pike is is one of the head coaches and administrators for the NOVA Sharpshooters, a rifle team run out of the Izaak Walton League in Fairfax County, Virginia. He is also a coach, shooter, parent of shooters, hunter, and fellow enginerd. Over the fourteen years he’s coached shooters in Northern Virginia, Tom has seen some very talented athletes start their careers at the NOVA Sharpshooters range. The list includes the names of NCAA champions, national match winners, and Olympians.

This is Tom Pike, or at least, this is Tom Pike's Back. As a coach for the last 14 years, he is frequently finding himself in a position like this - at a range, recording scores and encouraging his shooters. Photo courtesy of Tom Pike.

The most-recently newsworthy shooters to come through the program are Lucas Kozeniesky and Ginny Thrasher. Lucas and his college coach Keith Miller were the subjects of a recent series I wrote about being "Behind the Scenes in Rio", where Lucas competed in the men's air rifle event. And Ginny recently made a big splash when at age 19 she won the first gold medal awarded at the Rio Olympic Games in women’s 10m air rifle. That’s the same event Ginny started with when she began her Olympic rifle journey just four years ago in the NOVA Sharpshooters range, which used to be a tractor garage and has since evolved into a state-of-the-art 25 point air gun facility.

Ginny Thrasher started shooting at the NOVA Sharpshooters junior rifle club, and last month in Rio her air rifle skills and her competitive grit earned her the first Gold Medal awarded at the Rio Olympics.

Ginny Thrasher started shooting at the NOVA Sharpshooters junior rifle club, and last month in Rio her air rifle skills and her competitive grit earned her the first Gold Medal awarded at the Rio Olympics.

As usual with yours truly, I got to talking and Tom shared a LOT of great info. I'm going to split it up into a couple posts to keep the length from getting overwhelming, so stay tuned for the next parts of this interview! 

The Interview: What an Olympian-Producing Junior Rifle Club Looks Like

Q: Can you share some background on the program - when did it start, who can be part of NOVA Sharpshooters, how many shooters a week/month/year train there, how does it fit into the competitive shooting network in NOVA (Acorns, high school league, adults who shoot, etc.)?

A: The NOVA Sharpshooters started almost 25 years ago in a 3 bay tractor shed (blogger's note: this is where I learned to shoot!). We had to move tractors and equipment out of the way, used Daisy 853 sporter air rifles and portable pellet traps on milk crates. By the time you started shooting around 2001 we had a space heater and some decent targets hung, but still only seven firing points on the range. Two years ago we kicked off a building effort that got us to the range as you see it today (blogger's note: I'll share more about the range in Part 3 of this post!). The Izaak Walton League is also home to junior shotgun and archery sports.

The NOVA Sharpshooters Range in the "tractor shed" stage, just before the range expansion started. There were seven firing points, shooting on the classic 12 bull paper targets. This is pretty much how the range looked when I shot there from 2001 - 2007. Photo courtesy of Tom Pike.

The NOVA Sharpshooters Range in the "tractor shed" stage, just before the range expansion started. There were seven firing points, shooting on the classic 12 bull paper targets. This is pretty much how the range looked when I shot there from 2001 - 2007. Photo courtesy of Tom Pike.

This is what the NoVA Sharpshooters Range looks like now - what an incredible transition! There are now 25 air rifle firing points, and the range frequently hosts high school league matches and even the World Police and Fire Games last year. Photo courtesy of Tom Pike.

This is what the NoVA Sharpshooters Range looks like now - what an incredible transition! There are now 25 air rifle firing points, and the range frequently hosts high school league matches and even the World Police and Fire Games last year. Photo courtesy of Tom Pike.

Anyone can be part of the NOVA Sharpshooters. While we are mostly a Junior program for young people under the age of 20, adults can now use the range too. We have over 200 active juniors using the range six nights a week.  That includes the six high school teams that use our range as their "home range." Each shooter from those six high schools joins the NOVA Sharpshooters.

We are the only junior program that takes beginners as young as eight years old.  There are12 teams in the Potomac High School Rifle League, and many of them send younger interested kids to my program to learn to shoot before they reach 9th grade.

During the school year, each of these high school teams has a designated time to practice on the range. So this place is packed from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. six nights a week. Mondays and Fridays are reserved for members of the NOVA Sharpshooters, not any specific school. 

We also have the Acorns Junior Rifle Club, which is like a travel soccer team for target shooting, taking the best shooters from the area. The NOVA Sharpshooters feeds into the Acorns, so shooters who want to travel to matches can train with the Sharpshooters and travel with the Acorns. (Blogger's note: This is helpful for shooters who want to become nationally competitive - they might be a member of two or three teams to get range time and fill out their training schedule.)

The NOVA Sharpshooters range has hosted a lot of matches. During the season, the range hosts air rifle matches for the high schools that call the range their "home", and frequently on weekends we'll host sectional or regional matches. In 2015, the World Police and Fire Games shooting events were held at the NOVA Sharpshooters range.

In June 2015 the NOVA Sharpshooters range hosted the air rifle portion of the World Police and Fire Games. Police officers and fire fighters from around the world competed at the new range in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo from http://fairfax2015.com/gallery

Q: What is the training and competition philosophy of NOVA Sharpshooters?

A: "Be safe and have fun."  Our motto is “Shut Up and Shoot” because many of the kids are having too much fun, chatting instead of shooting.  That motto is painted on the ceiling in the new range, so that coaches can point to it whenever they need to. That's the signal to the shooters to get to shooting. But it really is important to have fun. The kids who really enjoy shooting are the ones who do well in the competitions. I want them to work hard and train hard, but I want them to have fun, too.

Our competition philosophy is to shoot as many matches as you can. Not just locally, but regionally and state-wide too. Anyone who joins the NOVA Sharpshooters will shoot matches early and often in their time as a shooter. I think this philosophy helps our shooters to be good competitors. (Blogger's note: This is definitely the case in my experience! I shot in a lot of matches through the NOVA Sharpshooters and the Acorns, and I love to compete now.)

All the matches we run at the NOVA Sharpshooters range are open to adults. Before, with limited space it was hard to fit more people so we focused on the juniors. Now with 25 firing points we hope to start getting adults to shoot too. Some more opportunities are opening up. For example, the Virginia CMP started a Commonwealth Rifle League using the Orion target scoring system - it's a league between Stafford, Hampton, and other cities. Those might be open matches not just for juniors, for anyone looking to compete! 

Stay tuned - later this week I'll publish the rest of this interview, where Tom shares more about the range renovation as well as his experience coaching Olympians.

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