Ginny Thrasher once dreamed of being an Olympic figure skater. While she glided up and down the ice at Fairfax Ice Arena, Thrasher thought about one day representing the United States on one of the world’s biggest stages. But when ninth grade came around, Thrasher realized her route to a gold medal probably wasn’t in skating.
“To be honest, I was never very good at it,” Thrasher said.
But this August, Thrasher, 19, will represent the United States as the youngest shooter on the 15-member Olympic rifle team. As a freshman at West Virginia, she won national titles in both air rifle and small-bore during the NCAA championships in March. Then on April 4, she was named to the U.S. team headed to Rio.
“What she achieved as a freshman in college is as good as anyone in the last 10 years or more,” West Virginia rifle Coach Jon Hammond said. “The things she’s achieved just this year, it’s not very often that someone achieves that. Usually it’s someone who has international experience and has been shooting for a long time. Not a college freshman.”
A little more than five years ago, Thrasher and her family were headed home to Springfield after visiting her grandparents in Pennsylvania when she asked her father, “Hey, how come I can’t go hunting with Grandpa?”
After her parents agreed, Thrasher enrolled in a hunting safety course with “a whole bunch of Amish boys,” and a few months later, she was out at 4 a.m. with father, Roger, and grandfather, Bob Weygandt. And then the wait for a deer started.
“I don’t think she was expecting to be standing out in the woods as long as she was,” Roger said. “It was, at some point, for her ninth-grade self, a little bit boring.”
But when a deer finally showed up, Thrasher’s father and grandfather were not expecting what they saw next.
“They didn’t think I was going to pull the trigger,” Thrasher said. “They didn’t think I could kill a deer.”
She did — and felt a thrill unlike anything she had felt before.
“It was just a big rush of adrenaline,” Thrasher said. “Things were happening very fast and all of a sudden, my aim was good and it was an exciting feeling.”
That first hunting trip pushed Thrasher to check out the open practice for the air rifle team at West Springfield High. As other students filtered in and out, staying for around an hour at a time, Thrasher kept shooting and shooting. She realized she had been at it for 3 1/2 hours.
Hammond, who competed in the 2008 Olympics as the lone representative in rifle for Great Britain, first encountered Thrasher as a high school sophomore at one of the Mountaineers’ camps for the sport. Upon introduction, Thrasher immediately separated herself from the pack, not for her rifling abilities but for her personality and coachability.
“She was very receptive to every piece of instruction we gave, but she was just an incredibly bubbly 15 year old,” Hammond said. “She was certainly someone we noticed at the time not so much for the scores and the level she was competing at.”
What she lacked in experience, Thrasher made up for in work ethic as she continued to improve at an exponential rate. Practice turned into a five-day weekly routine. By the end of her senior year at West Springfield, Thrasher earned five medals at the 2015 USA Shooting national championships and third place at the 2014 Junior Olympic championships, among many other accolades.
“There was never a moment where I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really good at this. Time to take a break,’ ” Thrasher said. “It’s always been, ‘Oh, you’re good, but you could be better.’ ”
Thrasher enrolled at West Virginia, which has won 18 of the 37 NCAA championships contested in rifle, and it did not take long for Hammond to recognize that he was coaching someone with Olympic potential.
“Honestly, the rate of improvement was so quick,” Hammond said. “I don’t think she expected to have the success that she did at NCAAs, and a lot of people didn’t expect her to have the success she did at Olympic trials.”
In March, Thrasher became the second member of West Virginia’s program to win both the individual small-bore and air rifle championships, earning her a spot at the U.S. Olympic trials in Fort Benning, Ga. The trials were scheduled over three days; by the end of the second, Thrasher had virtually clinched her spot.
“I didn’t really care much about the Olympics,” Thrasher said. “I knew shooting was an Olympic sport, but I never really thought, ‘Oh, I want to go to the Olympics in shooting.’ I was just shooting because I loved shooting.”
Her father had imagined his daughter making the Olympics at some point but not this soon.
“When the time came for the Olympic trials, we had a realistic view that the best Olympics for her would be 2020,” Roger Thrasher said. “She would’ve finished her [college] shooting career and would’ve been able to practice and prepare for those trials and had a bunch more experience under her belt. . . . While we were surprised, we weren’t shocked.”
The reality of being an Olympian still hasn’t fully set in for Thrasher.
“It’s really overwhelming, and I think when I get there . . . and get the clothes with Team USA and we head down to Brazil and I think once I get there and I see the Olympic village, it’ll hit me more than I’m actually a part of the Olympics,” she said.
Both of her parents and two brothers will make the trip to Rio, though her father may not be able to watch the events unfold.
“You see every shot, and as a dad, it can be very nerve-wracking because you can’t do anything. You just have to watch,” Roger said. “I’m usually out pacing outside, and I’ll stick my head in and see what the score is, but it’s hard to watch because as a dad, you can’t do anything.”
Even facing the prospect of competing on a world stage, the only thing that is in Thrasher’s mind is to feel that same rush she felt when she surprised her dad and grandpa.
“I knew the stars were aligning and I was reaching towards something I had prepared for for a long time. The Olympics are just another steppingstone in my shooting career,” Thrasher said. “I’m very fortunate that it’s happening, but it doesn’t change anything. It’s just another competition for me to shoot.”