SALT LAKE CITY — Matthew DeLong found himself with several of his peers at the Olympic training center a few months before the start of the 2012 London Olympics. He and his fellow coaches were watching soon-to-be gold medalist Jamie Gray shoot in the finals of the women's 10-meter air rifle match.
DeLong, a collegiate pistol coach at the University of Utah, has been shooting competitively since 1984 and was one of 16 in the country participating in the Olympic selection match for rapid fire pistol.
"I can brag that I am the 13th best rapid fire shooter in the country, but I only beat three other people and two of them are little kids," DeLong said. "I mean there's no glory in this, none whatsoever.
"You get to be a relatively big fish in a very small pond," he said.
That pond is even smaller for women in competitive pistol shooting. Alexis Lagan is one of the few women he coaches at the U.
"The number of international-class women in the country in pistol shooting, you can literally count on the fingers of one hand," DeLong said.
A marksmanship unit recruiter expressed interest in Lagan, a 19-year-old student, during the 2012 National Rifle Association Collegiate National Championships. She was competing in both men's and women's events. Lagan was the lone female participant in the free pistol shooting event on that day.
DeLong said some of the best shooters in the country are in the U.S. Army marksmanship unit, because it's a place where a shooter can make a living and practice full time.
Because of her high skill level, recruiters offered her an opportunity to enlist as part of the Army marksmanship unit. Lagan was told she would be given the opportunity to train for the Olympics at the same time.
"The only problem with that is that I am trying to finish my degree before I go on and try to do something else," she said. "I find education very, very important."
Lagan understands that in order to get to an Olympic level, she needs to dedicate all her time to shooting. Joining the unit would help her with that goal.
"That would be your job — you wake up in the morning, you get dressed and you go to the range and shoot," she said. "In all honesty, that sounds like a great opportunity, doing something that you love everyday and learning new things. To me, that sounds like the package deal."
But it's an option that she'll have to consider later, barring any injury, she said. For now, school is the physics student's No. 1 priority.
After the collegiate nationals, Lagan went on to compete at the 2012 Junior Olympics for the first time. For Lagan it was a special moment. Walking down the halls of the center, she noticed Secret Service agents and later discovered that first lady Michelle Obama was in the same complex.
Nervous because of her first competition and Obama's presence, Lagan said she forgot to put on her ear buds during warmups. She recalls almost crying because of the echos of the gun.
"After the warmup rounds and not putting my ear buds in, I was shaking like a leaf," she recalled. "It was so bad because the range that they have is twice as large as this range (at the U.), plus it just had so much area, the echo is horrible and you have eight girls shooting at the same time, very loud 25-meter pistols."
At one point, Lagan was in sixth place. She finished in the finals in the 25 meter, finishing No. 8.
Lagan came out of the competition a better shooter, learning new patience in her craft. She exceeded her expectations by making the finals in the 25 meters and beating her collegiate competition score for the 10-meter event.
Her next goal is to make the top three and join the Junior Olympic team.
"I want to be able to beat myself and that is the main thing in these competitions," she said. "It is not so much that I won or I lost, it is more that I beat myself."
Lagan currently considers shooting her part-time job. She spends about 30 hours a week practicing her craft in rapid fire and standard shooting.
In a sport where winning is separated by tenths of a point, Lagan knows that she has her work cut out for her if she ever wants to reach the Olympics.
She is currently ranked No. 38 nationally in U.S. shooting out of 167.
As for her chances of making the Olympic team, her coach said it is far too early to tell because she has only been competing for one year. In his experience, it takes 12 years of training to reach the Olympic level.
The Boulder City native has had a rifle in her hands since she was 8 years old and through the years has competed in small events. She said she didn't find her competitive spirit until she arrived at the U.Comment on this story
Lagan and the student-generated club are looking to win several All-American titles this year, but in order for her to improve her shooting, she needs to start competing in other events outside the school.
"I would like to start traveling more to see what I am up against," she said. "Nationally, I want to be able to take a few more seminars. I love being coached here, but I want to be able to take a little more coaching classes."
After the 2013 Junior Olympics, Lagan will set her sights on the 2014 Women's World Championships in Granada and then the main goal, the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.