All sports are about movement – speed, power, dexterity, grace, finesse – except rifle shooting. The best shooters spend long moments relaxing their muscles, regulating their breathing and the flutter of their eyelids until that moment when they have willed their way to perfect motionless calm, a Zen-like trance. Their muscles are limp now, their bodies so light they could levitate, their breathing stopped, their eyes wide, unblinking. Their entire consciousness is focused only on that black dot 50 yards away as their forefinger moves in agonizing slowness through that 1/8th of an inch: “ping.”
Rifle shooting is the only sport in which all the competitors begin a match with a perfect score (600 points, 200 for each position), and spend the next two hours falling from grace. Shot after shot they lose points until the winner is declared. It’s a maddening sport of diminished expectations. Without thrills. Sport is about that great exhilaration of expending emotional, mental and physical energy in pursuit of success. It’s cathartic, a release. Shooters don’t release. They repress. Emotions, energy, movement, power, thought, even joy. There is something of the masochist in shooters. They are obsessed with perfection in a sport where perfection is numerically and tantalizingly possible, but is cruelly elusive. So they learn to appreciate those small private satisfactions in sport, and life, that most people disdain. Shooters are minimalists in the baroque world of sport. They are cerebral rather than physical. Ascetic rather than flamboyant. Abstemious. They live inside themselves, outside the world. They are comfortable with numbers, machines, rituals, order, silence, stillness, themselves. Shooters hold only themselves accountable.
Women, particularly, have the mental touch for triggers. Throughout modern history some of the best rifle shooters have been women. Annie Oakley in her long leather skirt and cowboy boots, her back to the target, her rifle on her shoulder aimed at the bull’s-eye; Annie staring into a mirror in front of her face before she shoots. In the 1960s and 70s, Margaret Murdock, a bespectacled Kansas farm girl with a toothy grin, was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She was assigned to the Army’s Marksmanship Training Unit and eventually assigned to the All Army MTV in Fort Benning, Georgia, the only woman in the unit. She toured Europe shooting in international competitions against men; and in 1976 she became the first female shooter ever to compete in the Olympics. In the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Margaret tied a man for the Olympic gold medal. The judges examined the targets over and over until finally they took the gold from Margaret and gave it to the man. The Olympic Committee then passed a new Olympic rule that women could henceforth only compete against women.
There was no such rule in NCAA collegiate rifle shooting, however; and in 1974, at age 19, Sherri Lynn Landes, a sophomore at Penn State, became one of the first women to compete on a men’s NCAA team. She was the best shooter on that Penn State team because, she said, “I’m not like them. They’re just on the rifle team. I’m a shooter.”