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Bob Ryan

For US shooter Matt Emmons, triumph and heartbreak

US shooter Matt Emmons is married to Czech Olympic shooter Katie Emmons. Paul Hackett/Reuters

LONDON — Matt Emmons may have had an unmatched Olympic experience.

“Sometimes when I go to the range, I think I’ve been in more situations than anyone else here,” he maintains.

We could start with the cancer, I guess, although I’m sure that, like most cancer survivors, he doesn’t want that to be his defining identification.

But the list of London 2012 Olympic competitors who have had cancer — in his case thyroid cancer — isn’t very long, and that does distinguish him in this particular competition.

Perhaps I’d better not go too far without mentioning that Matt Emmons, a 31-year-old American rifle competitor, has won a gold medal, so this is not some weepy hearts-and-flowers tale with a completely sad ending. He finished first in Athens eight years ago in the 50-meter rifle prone event. From that point on the story gets a bit bizarre.


He was on the verge of a second gold in Athens. With one shot remaining in the 50-meter three positions competition, he needed only an 8.0 to secure the gold. But he accidentally aimed at the target in the third lane when he was supposed to be firing at the target in the second lane. He was given a zero and dropped to eighth.

His explanation: “I was just worrying about calming myself down and just making a good shot and so I didn’t even look at the [lane] number. I probably should have. I will from now on.”

Miraculously, something very good came from that competitive disaster. He was having a consoling beer or two in Athens that evening when he was approached by the coach of the Czech shooting team and one of its female members, Katerina Kurkova. The coach complimented Emmons on the classy way he had handled his unfortunate situation. Emmons and the young lady hit it off, and three years later she became Katerina Emmons. They are now the proud parents of young Julie.


Beijing provided a new chapter in the Emmons saga. This time his lead with a shot to go in the 50-meter three positions event was the equivalent of being up by 20 in a basketball game with a minute to play. All he needed to nail down the gold was to fire a 6.7, this on a day when his previous low score had been a 9.7. What happened has gone down in shooting history as The Case of Premature Capitulation.

If what happened in Athens was inexplicable, what transpired in Beijing was unimaginable. Somehow, some way, Matt Emmons pulled the trigger prematurely, hitting a 4.4 that sent him from sure gold to off the podium and into the dreaded fourth-place slot.

Calling Rabbi Kushner: Would you like to take a stab at explaining why these bad things keep happening to such a certified Good Guy?

Matt Emmons quite obviously did not wish to have that Beijing moment be his final Olympic experience. Of course, the cancer matter intervened, adding a completely somber aspect to the story. But here he is, back for a third Olympics.

Being Matt Emmons, however, things are not going as well as he’d like. Simply put, his back is killing him.

“The back hurts,” he said Monday after failing to qualify in the 10-meter air rifle competition. “I haven’t been able to figure out a position where it won’t hurt. My wife Katie has been watching me, and she says my body is swaying. Imagine if you were to flex a bicep for 30 minutes, the strain at the end of it. That’s how the back feels.”


Shooting rules preclude the use of a back brace. “You’re not even allowed to tape it,” he explained. So he undergoes physiotherapy and takes advantage of whatever medical help he can get.

Emmons gives himself a better chance to be competitive in the 50-meter three positions. “There are 40 shots, as opposed to 60,” he reasons. “That should help. And the gun is a little heavier, so the balance will be better.”

The central fact remains this: He is here.

“I tell people this is what I live for,” he said. “You only get to do this once every four years. I’m part of a long line of people living the Olympic ideal every day. If I could pull out of here with a medal, that would be great.”

He’s not done. He will compete Aug. 6 in a much more preferred event, the 50-meter three positions.

“I know about the highs and the lows,” he said. “I definitely try to enjoy and appreciate every moment of this.”

It’s an amazing checklist of Olympic and life experience. And it’s not done yet.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.