Waiting game: Olympic-bound rifle players bide their time

Will Shaner. Kentucky defeats Murray and Morehead. Photo by Hannah Phillips | UK Athletics

Barkley Truax

After a year-long postponement, two University of Kentucky student athletes will head to Tokyo, Japan later this year to compete in the 2021 Summer Olympics.

Sophomore Mary Tucker and junior Will Shaner made history for the UK rifle team in February of 2020.

Tucker and Shaner aren’t the only Wildcats throughout the programs history to qualify for the games, as Nancy Johnson (1992-96) competed in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics. She took home gold in Sydney in 2000.

More recently, another Olympic gold medalist for Kentucky was Henry Junghaenel, who graduated in 2013 and competed in Rio in 2016.

The duo qualified at the Air Rifle Olympic Trials Part II, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, halting every major sporting event at the time.

The qualifying rounds feature two parts for each gun (four total). In Part I, Tucker was able to place third, something she didn’t expect going into the qualifiers.

Third place wouldn’t have been enough to punch her ticket to the games, as only the top two qualify. But Tucker won the next two qualification rounds. Despite this, she worried about her lack of experience down the stretch.

“I was confirmed as being qualified after our qualification round, so I didn’t even have to shoot the final,” Tucker said. “But I did and it was a very emotional moment for all of us.”

She said she was overwhelmed by her teammates’ reactions, text messages and both of her coaches crying after they found out she was headed to Tokyo. And she won’t be going alone.

Like Tucker, Shaner placed in the top three of the first qualification.

“Luckily within our shooting season at Kentucky I was able to keep the intensity up and keep the training up so when the second qualification match came, I was prepared for it.” Shaner said. He said all he had to do then was to do his job.

“Fortunately, during the [second] qualification match,” Shaner said. “I gained enough points to secure my spot so the finals and extra points that everyone else was going to get didn’t matter.”

He knew he was going to qualify, but that didn’t let that moment when his Olympic dream had come true go to waste.

“It was a little surreal,” Shaner said. “It was kind of a weight being lifted off your chest because you finally made it, you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

But the dream went downhill from there. Just over a month later, it was announced that the Olympics would be postponed, causing many athletes to believe their Olympic dream could be over. The cancellation of the NCAA rifle championships was the cherry on top.

“Right when those got canceled, I couldn’t look at my equipment for about two months without getting really upset,” Tucker said. “It was a very strange feeling. I love this sport but during that certain time I hated it.”

The games had only been postponed for a year, but depending on the status of the pandemic there has been speculation that they could be canceled completely.

“It’d be tough, real tough,” Shaner said of the possibility.

“I do think the games should be happening and I do feel completely safe,” Tucker said. “I do trust the Olympic committee, both the U.S. and international one, and I know they’re working their hardest to make sure that the athletes get to compete.”

Tucker and Shaner had tremendous seasons before the cancellations. Kentucky was named CRCA All American First-Team Overall, All-GARC First-Team in Combined, Smallbore and Air Rifle as well as several other individual honors and awards.

Due to the pandemic, Tucker wasn’t able to train for the first few months of the lockdown – something she never had to go without before. She looks to pick up where she left off as the rifle team nears the 2021 NCAA Championships.

“This year I’ve kind of been focusing on, ‘okay, what I was doing last year worked,’” Tucker said. “I’m just trying to replicate what I was doing and get back to where I was.”

Shaner was able to train throughout the summer but said it’s been tough to stay motivated mentally.

“It was heartbreaking for about a week or two, but I figured I had two decisions,” Shaner said. “I could either dwell on it like it’s over, or I could just kind of wait it out, kind of keep training, wait that extra year and finish out strong.”

Shaner says Team USA has done a great job communicating with him despite the fact that information is always changing due to the pandemic.

“They’ve actually been really helpful in sending out weekly updates,” Tucker said. “Reassuring the athletes that we will be going and to keep working towards our goals.”

In March, the pair will travel to India for a competition and to South Korea the next month. Before Tucker and Shaner head to international play, they’ll attempt to secure the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2018.

“I do think my team will end up winning the [NCAA] championship and I have a lot of confidence in them,” Tucker said.

The NCAA championships will be held Feb. 23 and Kentucky, along with TCU (the reigning champion), Ole Miss (the only team to defeat Kentucky this season), and West Virginia (seven straight championship game appearances) are the favorites to hang the banner.

Kentucky also plans to compete in the GARC championships as well, a tournament they haven’t come home victorious from since 2013.

Despite the championships drawing near, Tucker and Shaner have their minds focused internationally and toward Tokyo. But with international play comes the risk of contracting the virus and getting sick.

“There’s always a concern,” Shaner said.

Neither Tucker nor Shaner have shot a real competition match against other countries since 2019; Shaner says it’s worth the risk.

“It’s a very intense environment to be in and you have to get used to it before you feel comfortable in it,” Shaner said. To get to where he needs to be, he needs to take those risks.

No matter what happens with the 2021 games, both Tucker and Shaner have their eyes set for 2024, regardless.

“I’ve already got that tracked out,” Shaner said. “Especially since it’s already been pushed back a year so I’m only two year out from 2024 [qualifiers].”

In many other top sports like gymnastics, athletes who miss a year may have aged past their prime if their training doesn’t coincide with the Olympics or they miss a year, as everyone has due to the pandemic. But that’s not the case for rifle.

“Even if something does happen, I still have many more years after this one,” Tucker said.