Shooters use Olympic delay to hone technique

Australia’s Olympic shooting team was on final countdown to the 2020 Tokyo Games when the showpiece event was postponed amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Now, our Media Officer Rachael Oxborrow has caught up with two athletes to hear how they’ve coped with the year-long wait.

It had been 12 months between competitive events when Skeet shooter Laura Coles took to the range in March this year, marking the start of her delayed countdown to the Tokyo Olympics. The SSAA member knew of her selection and was mentally preparing for the usual few months of training ahead of an international competition when Australia went into lockdown as COVID cases began to rise.

The Western Australian’s debut was put on the back burner as she took a 10-week break from shooting, her longest in 19 years, before starting work on a new Olympic timeline. “Initially, not knowing when I was going to be able to train again had me a little anxious and when I came back I basically had to learn to shoot again,” she said. “I’m a bit of a high maintenance shooter and need to train quite often to keep myself at my best – I’m not a natural, I have to train.”

Coles said it was a unique opportunity away from the pressure of high-level shooting to work on technical aspects of the sport which get pushed aside during a hectic competitive schedule. “We’ve been lucky in Perth since COVID arrived in Australia, I haven’t really been impacted by way of lockdowns so have been able to focus on my shooting,” she said. “That said, I’ve been anxious to get back into competitive shooting to really prepare at that level.”

Coles travelled east in March to train in Victoria and New South Wales and compete at the Yarra Valley Grand Prix in Melbourne, the NSW ISSF Shotgun State Championships in Newcastle and Victorian ISSF Shotgun Championships in Echuca. The Yarra Valley event started shakily for Coles who admitted to being “a little rusty” until some fierce competition from Victorian shooter Brittany Melbourne reconnected her with her love of competing.

In Newcastle, Coles overcame trying conditions to hit 50 from 60 targets and defeat Bridget McKinnon (40/60) and NSW’s Suzy Balogh (32/60) and also recorded the highest qualifying score in the men’s and women’s competitions with 114 out of 125. She followed that up with another win at Echuca against her rival Melbourne and said: “It was really good for me to have that intense competition, it’s exactly what I needed.”

With those wins under her belt, Coles headed for one final interstate training and competition trip to the Queensland Clay Target Association State Championships in Belmont at the beginning of June, then returned home briefly before spending her final weeks in Australia at an Olympic quarantine camp at the Gold Coast Clay Target Club.

While hardly the ideal lead-up to an event of that magnitude, Coles said she was now feeling more prepared for Tokyo. “We had hoped to compete in South Korea in the months leading up to the Games but things were too uncertain for that to go ahead,” she said. Coles has been a regular on the international shooting scene, having competed at World Cup and Oceania events since 2011 and also represented Australia at two Commonwealth Games, winning gold at Glasgow 2014.

Also competing in her first Olympics is South Australian SSAA member Katarina Kowplos who, aged just 19, is relatively new to the international shooting scene. The past 12 months have been a mind game for the debutante, who counts herself lucky to have had access to a SCATT machine to practice dry firing and the ability to attend her home range at SSAA Para for outside practice late last year.

“I’ve definitely struggled with preparation over the past year,” she said. “At the beginning we thought the Olympics were just two months away, then suddenly they were more than 12 months away and we didn’t know what was ahead. It’s been a real whirlwind – I didn’t expect to qualify, especially as I was using a borrowed rifle and only had one butt plate and one set of sights. Since then I’ve bought a new rifle and had that rifle break and the replacement part delays because of COVID slowed down my training.”

The 3-Position shooter has hit form recently though, when she registered a personal best and won the Open 10m Air Rifle title at the Target Rifle South Australia Championships at Wingfield in May. She scored 251.0 and defeated fellow Olympic team members Dan Sampson and Elise Collier in the process.

Kowplos said the lead-up to leaving for Tokyo would see her focus on the technical side of shooting while also readjusting to travelling and packing the right gear. “I’m concentrating on technique now and making sure I can consistently shoot at my best, which includes how to change my rifle and ensure it’s perfect on the day,” she said. “We’re also having to get used to the process of going to another range and remembering how we pack to travel and what we’ll need in Tokyo, as we’re not sure which companies will be supplying parts at the Olympics because of restrictions.”

With strict controls around attending the Games, Kowplos is disappointed she won’t be able to enjoy the full Olympic experience by watching other events or seeing the host city. However, her shooting career plans already have her aiming for the Paris 2024 Olympics and returning to Tokyo as a tourist when travel restrictions are lifted. “Paris was my original goal when I started the qualifying matches in the lead-up to Tokyo selection,” she said. “I was mainly shooting to see how I would go over a really intense period of competition – I wasn’t expecting to be selected.”

Australia has named a team of 15 shooters for Tokyo and a further six for the Paralympics. As the final series of competitions ramped up for our Olympians earlier this year, some quality performances leave us with much to be hopeful about. SSAA (NSW) member James Willett took gold in the Men’s Trap at the Victorian ISSF Shotgun Championships in Echuca in May, hitting 45 of 50 targets, while the SSAA’s Victoria Collier partnered with Sampson for gold in the 10m Air Rifle Mixed Teams event at the Target Rifle South Australia Championships.

The Australian Olympic Committee announced plans for athlete safety earlier this year, including COVID-19 vaccinations for the team and support crew, quarantine and testing requirements and shortened arrival and departure windows. At time of publication the International Olympic Committee has indicated the Games will be going ahead as planned. The IOC controls the delivery of the Olympic Games and it alone is responsible for any decisions around delays or cancellation. The Tokyo Games are scheduled to run from July 23 to August 8 and Paralympics from August 24 to September 5.

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