Phil Sheridan: For Philadelphia-area shooter, bronze is as good as gold

Posted: August 08, 2012

LONDON - If they gave points for consistency, Matt Emmons would have three Olympic gold medals in the three-position air rifle event.

Athens. Beijing. London. Three times, Emmons needed merely to make one last shot. Three times, the Mount Holly native produced his worst shot of the competition. Three times, he dropped in the final standings.

This time, Emmons didn't fall all the way off the podium. He came away with a bronze medal, which is a fine achievement by any standards. It's just that his final shot, a 7.6 score, cost him a silver medal.

Emmons said he saw it as "winning the bronze," rather than losing the silver medal.

"Any time you stand on an Olympic podium," Emmons said, "is not a loss. It is a pretty cool thing."

No argument here. But still - if Emmons had made any one of his previous nine shots in that situation, he would have a silver medal. Any one of them. It took his worst shot of the day, just as it took hitting the wrong target in Athens and a misfire in Beijing to cost him two gold medals.

Before the Games, Emmons took exception to being included in Time magazine's list of notable sports chokers. He had very good explanations for Athens and Beijing. They were unrelated. They were products of being sick and letting his gun drift (Athens), of rushing his last shot to compensate for crowd noise (Beijing).

And now this.

In a way, Emmons' three-Olympic streak is more amazing than Michael Phelps' unprecedented streak. Phelps is the best swimmer of all time. He won the 200-meter individual medley gold medal in Athens, in Beijing, in London. Given his dominance, that isn't shocking.

Emmons' strange streak really is. Anyone can miss a target or make a mistake. But to reach the point where the last shot in an Olympic final is decisive, you also have to be among the finest in the world at what you do. Emmons undoubtedly is. And you have to stay at that level for at least three Olympic cycles. Emmons most certainly has.

And then, when it's time for that final shot, what? The yips? Cruel chance? Divine intervention?

"He said himself he was so nervous that he couldn't hold still," Emmons' wife, Katerina, herself a gold-medal shooter, said. "So he just took the shot as best he could, and this time the luck was on his side."

It must be said here that, as terrific a marksman as Emmons is, he is every bit as likable a human being. He's smart, sincere, self-effacing, funny. After talking to him before the competition - about the two mishaps, about the Time list, about his triumph over thyroid cancer - it was impossible to wish for anything other than a strong performance here.

And he delivered one. It's also painfully clear that the only thing between him and silver here was located squarely between his ears. As Susan Sarandon's Annie Savoy said in Bull Durham, "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness."

Matt Emmons' self-awareness is sharper than the sights on his rifle.

"Today was one of the hardest competitions I've ever had to shoot in my life," Emmons said. "I knew it was going to be tough. Basically, when I know that there are millions of people around the world who are looking at me to do well, that hope that I do well - that's really challenging. Especially with my history, it definitely didn't make it any easier. I'm not usually super nervous in the final, but today was tough."

A little perspective may be useful here. Italy's Nico Campriani, who shot brilliantly to take the gold, said, "I was shaking throughout the final. My heartbeat was too fast and too intense, but that does not necessarily mean a bad shot. The whole Olympics has been a fight with myself to control my thoughts and emotions."

And here is Korean Kim Jonghyun, the silver-winning beneficiary of Emmons' final shot: "In the past, I have been too conscious of scores and become very nervous."

All of these guys can shoot the needle out of a haystack. They're all excellent. It is how they deliver under the pressure of competition that decides the winners from the losers.

With a gold medal from Athens and a silver from Beijing in the prone rifle competition, and now this bronze from London, Emmons is solidly in the winner category. He is a remarkable shooter and a gentleman who takes ownership of his mistakes as willingly as his greatest successes.

He is human.

And in a lot of the ways that count, he is as pure a distillation of the Olympics and what they're all about as any great champion. He competes, he perseveres, he respects the game and his opponents.

If they gave points for all of that, Emmons would be golden.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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