FAIRBANKS - Matt Emmons slowly lifted a bullet from the box and inserted it into the chamber of his .22-caliber rifle.
He let out a deep sigh, and his torso settled into his hip joints, visibly shrinking him. His eyelids sank over dark blue eyes as if he was about to fall asleep. His eyes widened, he peered at the target 50 feet away, blinked fast three times, and squeezed the trigger.
Another perfect shot.
The 5-foot, 7-inch University of Alaska Fairbanks athlete is a really good shot. And he knows it.
"Arguably, I'm the best all-around rifle shooter in the world right now," Emmons said, when asked to size up his talent.
Few would argue. Not even his coach.
"Matt is in his own class. He's a prodigy. He is, in a way, genius," said rifle coach Glenn Dubis, who recently took over the team from David Johnson, who now coaches the U.S. national team.
Emmons, 22, from Browns Mills, N.J., led UAF's rifle team to its fifth straight NCAA championship in March. He did it by breaking his own NCAA record in smallbore with a score of 1,191 out of a possible 1,200, and became the first shooter in NCAA history to win the event three consecutive times.
He was the 2002 champion in the 50-meter men's prone event at the World Championships in Lahti, Finland. He's the only college shooter to get a perfect score in standing smallbore at 50 feet. And he's the only one to shoot a perfect score in air rifle, and he's done that three times.
The International Sport Shooting Federation ranks Emmons first in 50-meter prone and fifth in 50-meter three-position rifle. Last year, he was voted runner-up shooter of the year, according to the International Association of Shooting Sports Journalists.
Emmons also got straight A's his senior year and is graduating fifth in his class.
UAF has fielded a rifle team since 1937. Rifle became an NCAA sport in 1980 and was organized into a program that includes smallbore three-position, requiring 40 shots each in prone, standing and kneeling; and air rifle, requiring 40 shots standing.
At the NCAA Rifle Championships in March at West Point, N.Y., the team set a national collegiate record with an aggregate score of 6,287 in smallbore and air rifle, breaking the previous UAF record by two points.
Emmons isn't the only star on the team. Freshman Jamie Beyerle, 18, of Lebanon, Pa., won air rifle with a score of 395 out of a possible 400. Senior teammate Per Sandberg, 23, from Uppsala, Sweden, came in second, one point behind Beyerle.
The Nanooks first won the NCAA championship in 1994, and repeated from 1999 to 2003. Dubis expects the team to win again in 2004.
"I am absolutely stacked with talent," he said.
The most recent addition is Matt Rawlings of Wharton, Texas, the top high school male shooter in the nation.
As Emmons, Beyerle and Sandberg zipped and buckled themselves into their canvas and leather shooting suits, they talked about what it takes to be the nation's real top guns.
Raw talent and hours of practice every day at the university firing range only do so much. Rifle is a contest requiring nerves of steel, or at least techniques to calm a pounding heart and slow breathing so the shooter can "hold the center" while squeezing off a shot.
In smallbore, a .22-caliber rifle is fired at a target 50 feet away measuring approximately 1.4 inches. To get a perfect shot, the bullet must hit the center measuring .008 inches.
In air rifle, the shooter fires a pellet at a 1.2-inch target 33 feet away. The center ring measures .02 inches.
"You have to have the mental game. You have to be able to slow your nerves and control your heart rate and shoot through that," said Beyerle, who was one of the nation's top high school recruits in 2002 after winning the U.S. National Championship and getting a silver medal at the Junior World Shooting Championships.
Emmons uses visualization - mentally going through the process of making the perfect shot.
"All you have to do is recognize what you want to see, the perfect shot," Emmons said. When he makes anything less than that, he erases the image by visualizing the perfect shot before peering through the sights and shooting again.
Oscillation can kill a good shot. To calm the body, the shooters use progressive relaxation to find that perfect stasis - not too loose or too rigid.
"Say if you're nervous and your heart is pounding, there are methods where you can calm yourself down like that," said Emmons, snapping his fingers.
The three agreed that confidence is important to winning.
"If you are confident and if you know you're good, you are going to make that shot," Sandberg said.
When Beyerle accuses him of being cocky, he shrugs.
"Big shooters have pretty big egos," he said.
This summer, Emmons and Beyerle will compete in several World Cup matches, including those in Zagreb, Croatia; Munich, Germany; and Seoul Korea. Emmons also will train this summer at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in hopes of going to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Beyerle has her sights set on the Olympics, too.
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