LONDON — Matt Emmons said something fascinating the other day. He said it in response to a hard question about a tragedy. Emmons is a member of the U.S. Olympic shooting team. He, and another member of the team, were asked about their feelings concerning the terrible movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.
They all knew the question was coming. They have dedicated their lives to shooting, and so they have often been asked about gun control and gun safety and such things. Through the years at the Olympics, I have seen so many athletes get asked about atrocities and tragedies and political issues. Some handle the questions better than others, but it mostly feels a little bit unfulfilling. I remember in 1996 a diver and friend named Becky Ruehl being surrounded and asked questions about the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing. Afterward, she was spent.
“What can I say?” she asked me. “What am I feeling that everyone isn’t feeling?”
Still, Emmons and the others answered the questions as best they could, reminding everyone that sport shooting has nothing to do with savage acts like that, and talking about how their sport teaches something very different from violence.
Then Emmons said this: “Some of the nicest and most gentle and respectful people I know are in the sport.”
All my life, as a sports writer, I’ve thought that many of the gentlest and most compassionate athletes were boxers … fighters … the fiercest football players. It isn’t always true, of course — far from it — but it is often true. I’ve wondered a lot about that. I remember a ferocious-hitting football player who had grown up surrounded by violence — real violence: drugs, gangs and so on. He told me that hitting players on the field drained him of his rage and drained him of his fear. I hear he’s a teacher now. I remember a soft-spoken boxer who said that after a fight, he felt at peace and, paradoxical as it sounds, close to God. He’s a preacher now.
There are a lot of stories like that, more than I might have expected. Emmons himself seems a gentle soul. I don’t know if firing a gun at a target is a violent act — I guess people will disagree about that like they disagree about everything when it comes to guns — but Emmons speaks quietly. Maybe you’ve heard his story.
In 2004, at the Athens Olympics, he was in position to win a gold medal in the 50-meter three positions rifle event, when he aimed and hit the wrong target on his last shot. It was quite the story at the time, with people rushing in to make him an example of what pressure can do to someone. It might not have been exactly the right story — he won a gold medal at that same Olympics — but Emmons still responded with grace. In fact, he responded with so much grace that a female shooter from the Czech Republic, Katerina Kurkova, walked up to him to say how impressed she was. They were soon married.
Then, Emmons went through almost the same story in 2008 in Beijing. Once again, he was up for gold on the final shot, and this time he rushed through his preparation. He thought shooting fast, before the crowd noise distracted him, would be the best course of action. It was not. He flubbed the final shot. He lost another medal.
A few months later, his first child was born. He fought back from cancer. He worked through numerous issues with his shooting. And he made it back to the Olympics.
In other words, he has never allowed himself to be consumed by his failures, by his mistakes, by the bad breaks. He insists that shooting guns at targets has given him that will, that discipline, that ability to knock from his mind what is secondary and distracting, and focus on the target. He insists that some of his greatest lessons about living have come from those countless solitary hours spent shooting his firearm.
Sports and life are different. We have rules on the field that would never stand in society, and rules in society that would not hold in the arena. Tragedy doesn’t really happen in sports; courage isn’t really the word for what happens on the field. There was no way for Matt Emmons or any of the Olympic shooters to help us make sense of Aurora. All they could say is that they are scared and confused and angry just like the rest of us.
But what they can help explain is what dedicating your life to shooting can do. After Emmons walked off the podium, someone asked him why he thought some of the gentlest people he knew were shooters. He said it was obvious. He said that it’s because the sport demands respect.