By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- U.S. Army sharpshooter Pfc. Vincent Hancock raises his shotgun and fluidly traces the arc of two clay targets hurtling across the range before him at 55 mph, breaking each one with flawless accuracy.
The 19-year-old skeet competitor, headed to his first Olympics next month, knows that he must sustain that perfection to clinch a gold medal. But after setting a world record at the World Cup Italy championship in Milan in June 2007, the young marksman is confident that target is within reach.
"I was just really zoned in, that's what it really takes to shoot a perfect round, to be in your zone," said Hancock, describing the record-breaking round in which he hit 150 of 150 clay discs -- an accomplishment he says he will have to match to win the gold medal in Beijing.
After surprising himself by shooting the first 100 targets perfectly, Hancock said the last 50 seemed effortless. "It was just so easy, it felt like I didn't even have to try. I would just step on the station and my gun would automatically go to the right spot and break the target every time." The challenge now, he said between practice sessions at the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit ranges at Fort Benning, is to figure out "how to get to that point very easily."
Hancock is one of six marksmen the Army is sending to the Summer Olympics, and the soldiers are expected to prove a core strength of the U.S. teams. Since its creation in 1956, Army Marksmanship Unit members have won more than 40 world championships and 22 Olympic medals, more than half of the U.S. total in shooting in that time. Prospects are good for more medals this year; for example, the U.S. double-trap team boasts three soldiers in the top 12 rankings, including two in the top five.
Three of the Olympic marksmen are on the shotgun team: Hancock in skeet, where competitors fire at targets thrown from high and low houses, and Spec. Walton Glenn Eller III and Spec. Jeffrey G. Holguin in double trap, where marksmen shoot at two clay targets thrown simultaneously from an underground bunker.
Another two soldiers -- Sgt. 1st Class Jason A. Parker and Maj. Michael E. Anti -- are on the international rifle team, and Sgt. 1st Class Daryl L. Szarenski is on the international pistol team.
Hancock said he gains a big advantage by training with the Army team. "We have the greatest shooters in the nation, and some of the best around the world. Getting to shoot with those guys and girls . . . helps a lot," he said, because on any given day any team member is capable of beating any other. "We are all fierce competitors, that definitely shows on the range."
The military provides ample resources for training that are harder obtain as a civilian, said Hancock, of Eatonton, Ga. He began competing when he was 11 years old, joined the Army in June 2006 and gained a position on the shotgun team last November.
A veteran Olympian, Eller, 26, says the Army team has also assigned a "mental coach" to train the competitors in the critical psychological skills of successful shooting. Eller, who took part in the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics, is working on ways to keep his mind from getting in the way of his performance.
"Your mind is the biggest part of it. We all know how to shoot," said Eller, of Katy, Tex., who started his marksmanship career in 1990 at the age 8. "I like to put a song in my head . . . it basically lets your subconscious take over," he said, noting that he uses specific songs for different situations.
At the same time, team members say it is important not to overtrain. "You can actually shoot too much, we refer to it as burning out," said Holguin, 29, of Yorba Linda, Calif., a first-time Olympian. "You lose the motivation, the desire, so leading up to a big competition like . . . the Olympic Games you want to avoid that."
Training time is already limited, because as members of the Army Marksmanship Unit the shooters have other responsibilities, such as attending promotional events for Army recruiting and teaching better marksmanship to Army drill instructors.
"Our number one mission is to enhance marksmanship skills throughout the Army," said Parker, as he prepared to shoot a round with his Anschutz .22-caliber free rifle.
Last year, the unit trained more than 3,000 drill sergeants, who in turn teach new privates in boot camp. Skills they focus on include how to align gun sites to "how to get in a good solid shooting position," Parker said, adding, "Lying down is better than standing up or kneeling."
Members of the unit also work closely with gunsmiths to make technological improvements that have been incorporated into rifles used by soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Parker, 34, is heading to his third Olympics this summer, and placed fifth in the air rifle competition during the 2000 Games. Like Parker, about half of the soldiers in the Army Marksmanship Unit were recruited for their proven shooting skills and compete mainly in international contests. Others joined the Army first and then learned to shoot, and participate most often in national competitions using guns issued by the Army such as the M-16 rifle or M-9 pistol.
Led by Lt. Col. Frank Muggeo, the marksmanship unit has six competitive shooting sections and a 260-acre world class facility for training and competition. Its gunsmiths make custom firearms and developed the M-21 and M- 24 sniper rifles for the Army.