Behind the Scenes in Rio Part 2

Behind the Scenes in Rio Part 2

This is a continuation of a Behind the Scenes look at the Rio Olympics, from the perspective of Keith Miller, a rifle coach who attended the Olympic Games in support of Lucas Kozeniesky, who was the highest-place US finisher in the men’s air rifle event in August. To read part 1, click here. When I left off last time, Keith and the rest of Lucas' support team flew overnight to Rio in time to catch the results of the first shooting event via text. They made it to their apartment, and the next day ventured on a grueling three-hour "test drive" of Rio's public transportation system as they tried to map out how to get to the rifle range for Lucas' event on the third day of the Olympics.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (to Gear) in Rio

The Rio Olympics presented some equipment challenges to a few of the Team USA shooters. For any athlete, a competition serves as an opportunity to display all the skills, mental and physical, that he or she worked on throughout their training. For a shooter specifically, training acquaints the athlete with their rifle, specifically with the weight/balance, trigger, and sights. While changes to gear at a competition are sometimes called for by match officials when they believe a shooter's gear is outside the regulations, it is tough to deal with those match-day changes. Shooting a match on equipment that feels different can turn the match into a learning moment rather than a demonstration of the shooter's prowess. 

During the women's air rifle event, the very first medal-awarding event of the Rio Olympics, team USA shooter Sarah Scherer qualified for the finals match but was told by an official that tape she had on her air rifle’s butt plate was not allowed. Despite the fact that the rifle passed equipment check days earlier, the official made Sarah change her butt plate setup. She did an excellent job maintaining her cool on the world stage, but in an Instagram post later that day she shared how that change affected her performance.

Coach Keith was concerned this same thing could happen to Lucas, who also had tape on his butt plate. Before the final training period prior to his event, Lucas together with former Olympian Jason Parker approached the match officials about Lucas’ butt plate. “They said the butt plate tape was ok but stock weights Lucas had on his rifle were in the wrong place. So he had to relocate all his weights, under the cheek piece.” This weight relocation changed the feel of the rifle’s balance when holding it in the offhand position.

After that equipment adjustment, “Lucas had one practice period to get used to it. He had to spend most of his time readjusting his cheek piece so he could see through his sights properly,” Keith recalled. “This is a huge deal for any shooter, but especially if you’ve spent so much time getting used to the feel of a rifle, any minute changes can make a huge difference.” Heading into the match, Lucas appeared calm and ready. His support team bade him farewell and he went to the Olympic Village, while they returned to their apartment in Rio.

Twas the Night Before the Men’s Air Rifle Match

Lucas, his girlfriend, his parents, and his coach left together from the range on the night before the men's air rifle match. "We all took the train home and ate together at an awesome Brazilian steakhouse," Keith said. "Then his girlfriend Blair and I rode back with him in a taxi to the Olympic village" to drop off Lucas. The ride from the steakhouse to the Olympic Village and back to the apartment was yet another three hour journey. To get an idea for the scale of Rio, check out the map below. It shows the Olympic Village, the stadium for beach volleyball about ten minutes' walk from the apartment where Keith and the support team stayed, and the Deodoro Olympic Shooting Park.

After taking three hours on public transportation en route to the men’s air pistol event, Lucas’ support team decided to schedule a taxi to get them to the range in time for his event the next day. With the cab arranged, they went to sleep early. They had good reason to try to catch some shuteye the night before Lucas’ event, because the cab picked them up at 5:30am the next morning to leave enough time for any transportation hiccups that might arise. The men's air rifle event was set to start at 8am. 

Barricades

Their planning was borderline clairvoyant. Unbeknownst to the support team or the taxi driver, the security service at the Olympics changed the barricades en route to the Deodoro Shooting Park. This meant that when Keith, Lucas' parents and girlfriend arrived at their destination, they couldn't get out of the taxi. Despite the massive improvement in transportation time from their three hour trek to the men's air pistol event the previous day, they could not capitalize on the 45 minute taxi ride and had to navigate to a different entrance. It took another hour in the taxi before they got to a point where security allowed them to be let out of the cab. Thankfully planning for the worst-case transport time paid off. "We were still there early enough to be the first in line to get into the building for the men’s air rifle event," Keith recalled.

Between Lucas' equipment changes and this day-of transportation improvisation, #TeamLucas had to be good at thinking quickly in Rio. Luckily for Keith, Lucas, and his family, the forethought Lucas put into his training was similar to the support team's journey to the range. Despite last-minute changes, they were properly prepared and still achieved their Olympic goals. 

The Main Event

In the range on the morning of the men's air rifle match, Lucas' support team arranged themselves to see Lucas' firing point and the match results projected on large screens. Keith, Lucas' parents, and Lucas' girlfriend were not the only Americans in the spectator area at his event. The mother of Dan Lowe, the other US shooter in the men's air rifle event, joined them in the stands. Another spectator was Raleigh News and Observer reporter Luke DeCock, whom Keith got to know when Luke wrote about Lucas' Olympic journey. Various members of the USA Shooting Olympic team as well as coaches and staff that were not officially credentialed were also in the stands. 

For Keith, everything he did in Rio led to this moment. "I didn’t go in with too many expectations. I just needed to support Lucas," Keith said. "Anything beyond that was just icing on the cake." For athletes like Lucas and most Olympic shooters, they have just one event to prove what they are made of. Women's trap bronze medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein mentioned the significance of a shooter's one event in a recent interview with Dana Loesch of The Blaze

Unlike some of these other sports, like swimming or gymnastics, where you have [up to] seven chances to go win medals, everything that we work for has to come together on the one day and you have to be able to perform and deal with that pressure... It’s four years for one day.
— Corey Cogdell-Unrein, Two-Time Olympic Bronze Medalist

Lucas' "one day" in Rio went well. He was the first to finish the men's air rifle match, completing 60 shots in 41 minutes. He shot an identical score to his previous international match at the ISSF World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand, and finished 21st overall. Lucas was the top American shooter in Rio's men's air rifle event. Keith recalled proudly, "In the match he had one shot that went high, but he recovered well. He had a problem or two but he fixed it." 

"Lucas’s performance was really good. It was a really positive learning experience. He dealt with all the “Olympic” changes and still performed well." Keith shared that for Lucas, the Rio Olympics were "a great growth point for him. He’s new to international shooting and will pick it up well from here. There’s a lot of upside for him being a good, strong shooter for the US." 

Lucas, too, was happy with his performance on the Olympic stage. "I had an awesome experience and I learned a lot," he shared on Instagram

The Influence of the NCAA

Lucas and his support team stayed to watch the finals match following the men's air rifle event. They witnessed Italy's Nicco Campriani win the gold in men's air rifle - and Nicco went on to win the gold in men's three-position rifle later that week. Keith pointed out that Nicco was a shooter on the NCAA national championship-winning West Virginia University Rifle Team, and as an NCAA coach Keith remains proud of how NCAA rifle athletes performed at the Rio Olympics. In fact, four of the five rifle gold medals awarded at the Rio Olympic Games went to former NCAA rifle athletes.

Keith summed up his feelings during an interview with other NCAA rifle coaches: "Frankly I think the inherent structure that NCAA shooters must operate within today provides an excellent starting point for a balanced approach.  They must allocate an appropriate amount of time for academics, for range training, for physical training, for rest, and even a bit for their social life away from the team.  They must be excellent time managers.  An inherent benefit of this modular schedule is that they have to learn to focus on the task at hand and put other distractions aside.  Clearly as a shooter this is a critical skill on both a micro and macro level."

After Lucas' Match

Following Lucas' event on the third day of the Olympics, Keith and the support team had one day to explore Rio before hopping on a redeye back to the US. They stuck to the area around their apartment, which included the world-famous Copacabana Beach, Ipanema, and a trip to "USA House". According to Keith, USA House was an "old catholic school that the USOC offered to fix up in exchange for a place that Team USA could chill out in. Athletes got a one-day pass to get free food and a place to chill. It was right on the beach!" After taking in the sights the support team headed to the airport to rendezvous with Lucas and fly home.

Thoughts on the Rio Olympics

"You think you know what the Olympics are about, but it is different when you get there," Keith said. In his four days there, Keith experienced Rio. Their apartment, transportation, food, recreation, and most importantly the rifle matches at the Rio Olympics left an indelible impression on Keith. "It is complex, convoluted, and logistically difficult to run an Olympics." The Organizing Committee did a great job though, Keith explains, and for athletes "it was predictable and safe. Shuttles left every so many minutes to get them to their venues." For international spectators and locals alike, it was trickier to get where you wanted to go. 

Lucas' Future and the 2016-2017 NCAA Season

Keith is confident that Rio and the Olympic Trials experience is just the beginning for Lucas. "He loves the sport [of rifle] and is a great ambassador. He wants to share the sport with younger kids," Keith says. Lucas is back at NC State for his senior year as a Sports Management major. The NC State rifle team started training almost as soon as Lucas and Keith returned to the Raleigh campus, and the Wolfpack's NCAA rifle season officially kicks off in a "home" match on October 15. If you are in the area, I highly recommend checking out this event, which is formatted differently than the typical match that takes place in a smaller, not-spectator-friendly rifle range. 

"We'll be shooting air rifle and smallbore rifle in the Reynolds Coliseum," says Keith, which means there will be room for an audience to watch. The Coliseum was recently renovated, and it looks unlike any match venue I've ever seen! Results will be displayed live on the arena's Jumbotron. This match pits NC State against West Virginia, which means that both Lucas and Olympic gold medalist Ginny Thrasher will be shooting. This will make for an exciting match, and it is part of an Olympic follow-up that Keith feels will "move rifle toward being more of a spectator sport." 

If you are in the area and wish to attend the season-opener to witness the two active Olympians in the NCAA compete, here are directions to the Reynolds Coliseum and you can read more about the match here

Conclusion

I am very grateful to Keith for sharing his experience in Rio. His perspective lets us see what it is like "behind the scenes" of one of the world's most popular sporting events, and that backstage view didn't disappoint. I wish Keith and Lucas and the NC State Rifle Team the best of luck this season! 

In another follow-up to the Rio Olympics, I got a chance to talk with one of my former coaches, who also happened to coach Ginny Thrasher when she was learning to shoot with the Izaak Walton League and the Acorns Junior Rifle team in northern Virginia. Keep an eye out for my write-up of that interview!  

Shooting Sports in the Paralympic Games

Behind the Scenes in Rio

Behind the Scenes in Rio