Ralf Schumann

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He holds all the records, world and Olympic. He is a 28-time World Cup winner. He has won Olympic gold twice and silver once, and is a gold-medal contender in Sydney. He has been the master of his discipline for 15 years. Yet he's unknown for it's the fate of rapid-fire pistol shooters not to make it into the spotlight but to disappear, as their bullets must, into a dark circle.

He is Ralf Schumann. A mild-tempered and obviously sharp-eyed man of 38, he was born in the former East Germany, where he took up pistol shooting at age 15. The pistol has since become an extension of his right arm, and rapid-fire shooting at 25 m his life. He fires 20,000 shots a year all in training for a competition that lasts no longer than 72 sec.

"The thrill of those 72 seconds is the challenge of technical perfection," Schumann says. Shooting is not about the one perfect shot but about the perfect copy of the perfect shot 60 times, aiming for the maximum of 600 rings. The world record, set by Schumann in 1995, is 597, a figure that has been equaled by him. Shooters are "mistake collectors," he explains. "Every hit besides the bull's eye is irretrievably lost."

Why he collects many fewer mistakes than his rivals he can't explain. He mentions better nerves, good concentration, light weight training and stamina, which he gets from jogging with his wife Anke, also a shooter. "The better your stamina is, the easier you can compensate the adrenaline output, to quiet your pulse and breath," he notes. A shooter must get rid of the adrenaline with almost no movement. Schumann had a lot of adrenaline to get rid of during a two-and-a-half-year winning streak that ended in 1997. "Don't remind me of that drama," he sighs. "Every competition was like starting at the Olympics."

Schumann works as a mechanic a precision mechanic, of course in a sawmill in the western part of Germany. His boss sponsors him by giving him three months off at full salary every year six months during Olympic years. At his prior job with a weapons importer, Schumann designed his own .22-cal. pistol, which is manufactured by the Italian company Pardini. Quite a few of his competitors now use it as well.

One of those is his countryman Daniel Leonhard, 27, who bested Schumann for the German championship in August. "Sydney will be tough," says Schumann. And after Sydney, will he be ready to give up the pressure? He notes only that "Ragnar Skanaker from Sweden won bronze in Barcelona." Skanaker was 58, so Schumann may have quite a few more Olympics in his sights.