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Meet the athletes: Shooting

Jul. 25, 2012 - 02:07PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 25, 2012 - 02:07PM  |  
Army Sgt. Glenn Eller brought home a gold medal during the 2008 Olympic Games.
Army Sgt. Glenn Eller brought home a gold medal during the 2008 Olympic Games. (Jon R. Anderson / Staff)
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Bio:

Army infantryman
Army Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, Ga.
Hometown: Darlington, Wis.
Age 30
Men’s 50m rifle prone
Competes Aug. 3

Bio:

Army truck driver
Army Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, Ga.
Hometown: Eatonton, Ga.
Age 23
Men’s skeet
Competes July 30-31

Bio:

Army infantryman
Army Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, Ga.
Hometown: Omaha, Neb.
Age 38
Men’s 10m air rifle, men’s 50m rifle three position
Competes: July 30 (air rifle), Aug. 6 (three position)

Bio:

Army infantryman
Army Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, Ga.
Hometown: Hillsgrove, Pa.
Age 26
Men’s double trap
Competes Aug. 2

Bio:

Army Reserve infantryman (former Marine)
Army World Class Athlete Program, Fort Carson, Colo.
Hometown: San Antonio
Age 37
Men’s 25m rapid fire pistol
Competes Aug. 2-3

Bio:

Army infantryman
Army World Class Athlete Program, Fort Carson, Colo.
Hometown: Seale, Ala.
Age 44
10m air pistol, free pistol
Competes July 28 (air pistol), Aug. 5 (free pistol)

Bio:

Army infantryman
Army Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, Ga.
Hometown: Phenix City, Ala.
Age 46
Men’s 50m rifle prone
Competes Aug. 3

Bio:

Navy Reserve information systems technician
Third Naval Construction Regiment, Marietta, Ga.
Hometown: Phenix City, Ala.
Age 41
Women’s 10m air pistol, women’s 25m sport pistol
Competes July 29 (air pistol), Aug. 1 (sport pistol)

Bio:

Army infantryman
Army Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, Ga.
Hometown: Katy, Texas
Age: 30
Men’s double trap
Competes Aug. 2

Sgt. Glenn Eller

Known as a wild man among his fellow marksmen, Sgt. Glenn Eller shrugs off a suggestion that he's the Shaun White of the U.S. shooting team.

"Probably more like Bode Miller," he says with a grin. Like the hard-partying, big-winning skier, Eller and his exploits on and off the range are the stuff of legend.

Just before leaving for basic training, said one Army shooter who knows him well, "he got drunk and woke up in South America. That's the kind of people this guy parties with. He's incredible."

"I have had more than my fair share of good times," Eller concedes.

Already a two-time shotgun-toting Olympian when the Army Marksmanship Unit recruited him to active duty, Eller said the Army has tempered his wild side since he put on the uniform six years ago.

"The Army has given me a little structure and discipline in my life, which I know I needed," he says.

He credits that discipline for not only allowing him to bring home a gold medal during the 2008 games, but also shattering two Olympic records in the process.

Still, he's far from tamed completely. Friends say he's still the life of the party.

Responding to one fan's Twitter question about his plans if he takes gold again in London, Eller tweeted: "Party like no tomorrow and dance like no one's watching!!"

Staff Sgt. Michael McPhail

Staff Sgt. Michael McPhail wants to gun down one of the noncommissioned officers in his unit. But in a nice way.

McPhail is headed to his first Olympics as a precision shooter. He'll be competing against fellow Army Marksmanship Unit soldier and Summer Games veteran Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft.

"We're pretty good friends, but I'm not worried about competing against him," McPhail says. "We talked about it a few days ago. We don't really care what color medals we get as long as we both get one and the U.S. flag goes up."

A few credits shy of his degree in finance at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he had honed his shooting skills, McPhail was recruited to the Army Marksmanship Unit nearly eight years ago.

"I jumped at the chance," he says. "I just wanted to see how good at one thing I could be."

He's about to find out. And he's not shy about his expectations: Olympic gold.

"I expect to win," he said. Making the team was "just a little road bump in the path. I've thought about winning the gold and nothing else."

Now, he says, he's bracing for the chaos and community of the games themselves.

"I'm really looking forward to being around thousands of outstanding athletes. I've watched the Olympics on TV for as long as I can remember. It's amazing, the look on someone's face after they win. I mean, that's a moment. It's really cool. And I want to have that."

Sgt. Vincent Hancock

Sgt. Vincent Hancock is the second soldier — and only other one besides Eller — looking to defend gold. At the Beijing Games in 2008, Hancock — only 19 at the time — took the top prize in men's skeet in a white-knuckle, sudden-death round. That's all the more impressive considering it's an event dominated largely by far more seasoned shooters, many of whom were competing in the Olympics before he was out of diapers.

As a skeet shooter, Hancock must engage pairs of clay targets moving at about 60 mph as they cross in the sky some 65 meters away.

Perhaps it's no surprise the 12-gauge-packing prodigy started shooting not long after he was putting on big-boy pants. By age 16, he had clinched his first world championship — along with a world record — and was named Shooter of the Year by the prestigious International Shooting Sport Federation.

That's around the time Army shooting officials took notice.

"The biggest thing they noticed was when I started beating all their guys," he says. "Once I was of age and turned 17, they asked me if I wanted to come over here and be a part of the team and be part of the tradition and help push our legacy."

He wasted little time, joining the Army in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school so he could make qualifying rounds for the 2008 Olympic team.

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker

A three-time Olympic veteran, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker was the last to qualify for the U.S. team this year.

"It's always fun going through this whole Olympic process," he says. "Being the last person is just a little bit more pressure realizing there's just one spot and a whole bunch of people trying out."

Parker's career in competitive shooting began in 1988, when he was a freshman in high school, and has continued in a steady burst of sharpshooting accomplishment.

He kept shooting while earning a psychology degree at Xavier University, graduating in 1996 and then joining the Army Marksmanship Unit.

"My first two Olympics I felt really good about," he says, both times landing among the top scorers but falling short of a medal. "In 2008, I came back with some lessons learned that I'll be bringing with me to the games this time around. I'm trying to use my experience as a strength rather than my history as a weakness."

Staff Sgt. Joshua Richmond

After qualifying early for his first trip to the Olympics last year, Staff Sgt. Joshua Richmond shocked his coaches when he volunteered for a combat tour to Afghanistan.

Not to worry, he told them, it was all part of his plan to zero in on a gold medal.

Besides feeling a personal obligation to soldier up and contribute to the war effort, "it was also part of my training plan to take me out of my comfort zone," the eight-year veteran says.

He knew the Olympics would be overwhelming. The opportunity to go downrange to help train Afghan marksmanship instructors was the perfect chance to grow.

"It definitely made me stronger and boosted my confidence," he says.

That kind of strategic thinking helped him tie a world record in a sport yet to see a perfect score. His record — 196 points out of 200, registered in 2010 in Munich while earning the world championship — stood for two years until it was cracked in March.

Given the pressure of the games, he's not expecting to reclaim the record but does plan to stake his claim for gold.

"I'm trying to keep my goals realistic," he says. "If go over there and [push] myself mentally and physically, I'll come home with a gold."

He'll have to beat teammate and defending gold medalist Sgt. Glenn Eller to do that, though.

Richmond said his biggest concern about preparing for London is becoming distracted with all the pageantry of the games themselves.

"I'm trying to keep myself calmed down," he says. "The one thing I'm working on very hard is just staying grounded — going over there with the intent to medal and then enjoy the Olympic experience once my work is done."

Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson

A former Marine with a penchant for speaking his mind, Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson was fired from the Army Marksmanship Unit in 2006. He says he had just written a paper suggesting changes the unit could make to improve efficiencies and better cross-pollinate its expertise with the rest of the Army.

"There were a lot of good people there, but it was a bad situation," he says now.

Stuck mowing grass while awaiting orders to South Korea, the national and world champion marksman paid his own way into the World Championship selection match, winning his event and laying the groundwork for a berth in the 2008 Olympic qualifiers.

Full redemption came when he secured his spot on the U.S. shooting team bound for Beijing a year later, along with a position in the Army's World Class Athlete Program in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he's been since.

Ironically, he nailed an Olympic record in rapid fire pistol shooting at the 2008 games but fell short of bringing home a medal.

An Army Reserve soldier mobilized on 870-day orders to active duty, Sanderson said he's excited to take another shot at the Summer Games this year. After notching some big wins over the past four years, he's feeling confident going into London.

Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski

Sgt. 1st Class Daryl Szarenski's two shooting events are among the oldest and newest of the competitions. The free pistol event, which uses a .22, was part of the first modern games in 1896. Air pistol competitions came about in the wake of World War II, when Germans were barred from owning firearms. It didn't become an Olympic event until 1988.

Szarenski began shooting long before that, when his father enrolled him in a marksmanship program while he was in middle school in 1979. His brother Dan was an early inspiration as an All-American rifle shooter at West Point through the late 1970s.

Szarenski's own training paid off, too, eventually earning him a scholarship at Tennessee Tech University, where he was a member of the pistol and rifle teams.

With 20 years in the military, he has spent his entire career as a competitive shooter, first with the Army Marksmanship Unit and, since 2010, with the World Class Athlete Program. Szarenski said concerns over the direction the AMU was taking prompted the switch.

"They're moving more toward training instead of competing," he says. "They just fired all their civilian coaches, and they've cut back on competitions quite a bit, while WCAP's mission is still winning at the Olympics. So I came here."

Specializing in two of the three pistol events on the shooting team, the three-time Olympian said he's all about winning on his fourth trip to the Games.

"It's been coming around for me," he says. "In the previous Olympics, I've hoped to do well. Now I expect to do well."

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft is a no-kidding rocket scientist. Actually, he's been a lot of things.

After learning to shoot as kid, he joined the Army Reserve to hone his marksmanship skills, eventually going on active duty with the Army Marksmanship Unit.

After a stint in school, he got a commission in the Navy Reserve, serving a tour downrange in 2007 with a Seabee unit. With a degree in aerospace engineering, he also worked for a satellite-building NASA contractor in Colorado.

"I guess technically, yes, I suppose you could say I was [a] rocket scientist," Uptagrafft said. "I had this civilian career on the outside, but I said I'd rather be shooting and pursue my dreams."

What he wants to be most of all is an Olympic gold medalist.

He got his first shot in 1996 with a spot on the U.S. Olympic shooting team in Atlanta.

"It was pretty overwhelming," he says. "It was my first big international competition, and I was a little out of my element. I've [gotten] a lot more seasoning — and gray hairs — since then."

A lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, Uptagrafft took a demotion to come back into the Army as an enlisted shooter, not to mention seeing another big cut in pay after resigning from his civilian job.

He's been a favorite to make the team for all three of the Summer Games since Atlanta "but just had hangups in the tryouts," he said.

This time, he was the first person to qualify for the U.S. team. In fact, he had amassed enough points in international competitions to secure his berth to London by April 2011.

"It was the culmination of a lot of hard work," he says. "The last time, I got caught up in all the fun things you can do at the Olympics. But this time, it is going to be business first."

Petty Officer 1st Class Sandra Uptagrafft

Unlike the other military shooters on the U.S. Olympic Team, Petty Officer 1st Class Sandra Uptagrafft does not have the full-time support of the military in her bid to the London Games. While the rest enjoy full-time positions with one of the Army's two elite athletic units, she's a communications specialist in the Navy Reserve.

Last year, while the others were on the range training, she was on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with her well-digging and bridge-building Seabee unit.

The unit supported a quick detour to Munich so she could compete in the World Shooting Championships, but for the most part, she's been on her own.

Still, she's no stranger to the Army Marksmanship Unit. Her husband, also on his way to London, is a shooter there, and before joining the Navy, Sandra served on active duty in the Army, assigned to the AMU from 1992 to 1995.

"I had shown potential, so they recruited me," she says.

She won her first national championship right off the bat. Although she was an alternate twice, her own Olympic berth eluded her — until now.

"It was very hard to get so close and not make it," she said. Back then, she relied more on her natural talent than dedicated training, but this time around, she's thrown herself completely into her training.

"It's definitely a relief and dream come to true to be going," she says.

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