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Former UAF shooter Emmons wins bronze at Olympics

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Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 12:14 pm | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Updated at 12 a.m.

LONDON — Matt Emmons’ final shot of the Olympic 50-meter three-position rifle competition was terrible. Again.

Only this time, he was thrilled.

After seeing gold medals — or any medal, for that matter — slip away with last-bullet debacles in Athens and Beijing, Emmons, an eight-time All-American at the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 2001-2004, finally made his way to the Olympic medal stand in the three-position event on Monday.

A score of 7.6 on his final shot might be dreadful for someone at the elite level, but good enough for Emmons to win bronze at the Royal Artillery Barracks, the fourth and final medal for USA Shooting at the London Games.

“Today was one of the hardest matches I’ve ever shot,” he said. “I had basically the weight of millions of people on my back, riding on today’s match, expecting — well, not expecting me to win, but hoping I would win. And also riding on that last shot, because I can’t run away from it. That’s just what everyone talks about.”

While shooting for the Nanooks, Emmons led the rifle team to four straight NCAA national titles and won four NCAA individual titles — smallbore from 2001-2003 and air rifle in 2001.

Emmons won a 50-meter prone rifle gold at Athens and silver in the event at Beijing, but he is best-known for his Olympic three-position misfortunes.

He was the leader with one shot left in three-position at Athens in 2004, then somehow managed to shoot at the wrong target. The zero score knocked him entirely out of the medal standings. A Czech shooter named Katy Kurkova shared a beer with the American that sad night, then happily married him three years later.

In Beijing, Emmons again led with one shot left. That time, the gun went off before he was aligned with the target. Gold gone, again. Medal gone, again.

So on Monday, Emmons paid no attention to the standings. He knew Italy’s Niccolo Campriani had a huge lead for gold — Campriani won easily — and that the race for silver and bronze was close. And the nerves darn near consumed him.

“My knees were shaking before I picked that gun up,” Emmons said. “I basically just tightened up my muscles as hard as I could and just relaxed them right before I picked the gun up to try to get that stuff out of my muscles and get to relax.”

He knew right away, the shot was bad, low and to the right of the center of the target. Emmons had been fourth at one point in the 10-shot final round, then worked his way up to third and eventually to second. A perfect score is 10.9, and Emmons’ seventh, eighth and ninth shots averaged 10.6. He was rolling along.

That is, until that last shot. A smidgen worse, he would have been out of the medals again. But the 7.6 was enough for third, 1.2 points behind South Korea’s Kim Jong-hyun and 0.3 points ahead of the fourth-place finisher, Cyril Graff of France.

“You never know, especially in this event and what happened in the last two Olympics,” Campriani said.

Emmons added: “For me, any medal’s good.”

His perspective on everything — shooting, life — has changed considerably since Beijing. In 2009, he and Katy, who live in Colorado Springs, Colo., became parents. In 2010, he worried about whether he would be around for his daughter.

That was when Emmons was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Surgery was needed, and he’ll be on medication for the rest of his life, but the 31-year-old has a clean bill of health again.

“The more I learned about it, I figured out if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid cancer is the one you want,” Emmons said. “But for that first week, I was sweating bullets. ‘What does this mean? Am I going to live? Who cares what it means for my shooting career? Am I going to see my daughter grow up? Am I going to grow old with my wife?’ It was tough, and not a lot of fun.”

He had plenty of fun on Monday.

The bad shot at the end was quickly forgotten. Emmons was all smiles, all hugs and handshakes for everyone he knew, even after almost throwing away his medal — literally.

Emmons was trying to loft the flower bouquet that all medal winners receive to someone in the stands. He wound up tossing his medal instead, having it fall on the floor beside him, a look of disbelief across his face.

“That was crazy,” Emmons said. “Man, I threw that thing and the medal goes flying up over my head. I guess it didn’t want to be there very long.”

Moments later, it was back around his neck, where it belonged.

Finally.

“It’s there now,” Emmons said. “It’s safe.”

Sports editor Bob Eley contributed to this report.

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