Coping with a Crap Shoot

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Matt and Katerina Emmons at the Beijing Games

As soon as American shooter Matt Emmons opened his eyes on Monday morning, he turned to his wife and asked for a favor. "Please tell me I had a bad dream," he requested. Unfortunately, Katerina Emmons, an Olympic shooter from the Czech Republic who won the first gold medal of the Beijing Games, couldn't comply. The disaster was all too real. A bullet was stuck in his gut.

If only it had hit the darn target. Four years ago, Emmons committed one of the most stunning gaffes in Olympic history. A few shavings away from his second gold of those Athens Games, Emmons shot at the wrong target, dropping him from first to eighth place. On Sunday, Emmons closed in on redemption. Once again, he entered the last shot of the 50-m Three Position (standing, kneeling, lying down) event with what seemed like an insurmountable lead. A minimum score of 6.7, on a 10.9-point accuracy scale, would have won him the gold. Nobody had scored below 7.7 all day.

As Emmons moved his gun into position, the bullet left the barrel prematurely. "The only thing I can figure is that my finger touched the trigger and set it off," Emmons says. "It was an accident." His shot went wild, and Emmons scored a 4.4. Two bullets, two brushes with Olympic infamy. "I walked away and was like, 'Crap, it happened again,' " he says. "I thought, 'Goddam, this is crazy.' "

The crowd screamed as if witnessing a horrific crash. Then joy filled the hall. Because of yet another Emmons error, the host nation's very own Qiu Jian would win the gold medal, with Emmons finishing fourth. In Athens, Emmons also gave China a gift. Because of his gaffe, rival shooter Jia Zhanbo lucked into gold. Give this guy a room for life in the Forbidden City.

Katerina Emmons, who was commentating for a Czech TV station, dropped her jaw, unable to speak. That's kind of a problem when you're an announcer. But in this case, silence said everything. "I was looking at the score, and thinking, 'No, no,' " she says. " 'Go away.' " She leaned across a rail to hug her husband. "The very first thing I told him was that it just wasn't meant to be," Emmons says. "I was like, 'What the hell is this? Why?' "

Sitting beside his wife in an Olympic Village café, Emmons, who did win silver in another shooting event (the men's 50-m free rifle prone), is surprisingly sunny. Katerina caresses Matt's hand as he recalls the details of his gory day. "I think we're the only people we know who haven't cried," says Katerina. Matt's coach, Dave Johnson, couldn't contain the tears. "He looked like his family was about to die," says Matt.

"My coach was crying too," says Katerina. That coach happens to be her dad, Petr Kurka, Matt's father-in-law. It wasn't just a family thing. Around the shooting hall, even some of Matt's fellow marksmen got misty.

Though Matt, 27, refuses to get depressed, pangs still pound his stomach. Shooting gets the spotlight only every four years, when the Olympics rolls around, and even then, something extraordinary — like back-to-back epic chokes — must take place for the sport to snare a headline. Ever hear of Americans Glenn Eller and Vincent Hancock? Of course not, even though they each won shooting gold in Beijing. "For the mass media, all they see is the Olympics," Matt says. Guilty as charged. "People don't get to the other 20 competitions a year. I've won many tournaments by scoring big on the last shot. I've had big leads and held them. It's just a shame that I don't have that medal as a reward for all the work that goes into this."

To cope, Emmons can take comfort in history. Last time around, a big plus emerged from the pileup: he lost the gold but won the girl. After collapsing in Athens, Emmons retreated to a bar with his buddies. He needed to drown his sorrows. A Czech shooter, Katerina Kurkova, came up to Emmons to offer condolences. "The way he handled that loss seemed very cool to me," Katerina, 24, says. "And I'm not blind. He's pretty cute." They started spending more time together on the shooting circuit and got married last summer.

This year, Matt needs luck keeping Katerina in the States. After she married Matt in the Czech Republic, Katerina says, her 10-year U.S. tourist visa was canceled. "We probably should not have gotten married," she tells Matt while detailing the hassles. A temporary visa expired in July. She says she's supposed to get a green card in September. Without it, Katerina can't re-enter the U.S. Sure, she's a Czech sharpshooter, but, Katerina insists, "I'm not a danger to the country."

Both shooters should show a little stress. But the whole ordeal seems to just bounce off them, as if they each have bulletproof vests. Katerina's gold, and the $100,000 sponsor bonus it delivers, surely helps (though another $100,000 from Matt would have been nice). Their post-Olympic dream: build a log cabin, preferably near a lake in Minnesota, and raise some kids. They're quite the happy couple, but make no mistake — there's something missing. "It's like two plus two is not adding up to four," says Matt. "It's adding up to 3.99 or something. It's almost all there." Emmons plans to compete in London in 2012. Can his wife take that last shot?