ATHENS, Greece - First, someone took a screwdriver and vandalized his gun. Then, Matt Emmons woke up one morning this week with something every competitive shooter dreads - an elevated heart-rate. He had a caught a cold.
His first thought: Slovakia's Jozef Gonci.
"He's a great shooter," Emmons said. "Leading up to the 2000 (Sydney) Olympics, he was the guy to beat. He got the flu and didn't walk away with anything. So when I woke up with the cold, I was like, 'Oh, no.'"
Friday afternoon, with some borrowed equipment and a lot of deep breaths, Emmons calmly faced a field full of Olympic veterans and turned that into, "Oh, yes."
The 23-year-old from New Jersey - who went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks on a shooting scholarship and decided to stay in Alaska after he graduated with honors in 2003 - won the gold medal in the 50-meter rifle prone event with a score of 703.3 points. That meant that somebody back in Colorado, where the U.S. team trains, had failed.
Germany's Christian Lusch was second with 702.2 points and Sergei Martynov of Belarus won the bronze with 701.6. Gonci, who was in the medals until the last shot, finished fourth with 700.5 points.
It's not exactly Jeff Gillooly clubbing Nancy Kerrigan in the knees with a lead pipe in a hallway. In this case, it was a screwdriver jammed into the barrel of the gun in a supposedly secure room. And they still don't know who did it.
"We have some ideas," Emmons said. "It's like 20 people who had access to the area where the gun was."
It happened back in April, before he came to Athens for the World Cup and before the U.S. Olympic team trials. He went to shoot his .22 and discovered that someone "gouged it pretty bad."
"I unpacked my gun and I noticed that something wasn't right," Emmons said. "Sure enough, somebody had done something to it."
At first, Emmons thought his rifle was just dirty, but he soon realized the severity of the damage.
"I shot it and I couldn't get the shell out," he said. "I said, 'Something's wrong here."'
Emmons said it couldn't have been an accident.
"Oh no, no," Emmons said. "Somebody took a screwdriver and went in."
Fortunately, he said, the wood stock - the part of the gun that he had customized through the years to fit his grip - was unharmed.
And Emmons, who led UAF to four straight team NCAA titles and won four individual NCAA titles himself, was able to tap into his Fairbanks connections to replace the damaged weapon. Emmons said Amber Darland of Delta Junction, a former teammate at UAF, let him borrow her barrel action, the metal part of the gun that had been damaged.
"It's fantastic," said Emmons, who added he owes Darland a really nice dinner when he gets back to Fairbanks. "The only real difference is this one is a little lighter. I was able to put my trigger on it, my sights on it. So everything I physically see is the same."
Friday, with that gun in his hand, he was nearly perfect.
Picture a dime. That's slightly bigger than the size of the bull's eye for this event. Now imagine stepping back 50 meters and firing 60 shots "at will."
In this case, Emmons didn't waste much time. He noticed that, because of his elevated heart rate, he couldn't hold still for long. So he fired away.
The result in the preliminary round: he hit the bull's-eye 59 of 60 times, putting him in the first place with 599 points.
Then, in the finals, where scoring gets more detailed and demanding, Emmons had to wait as judges called off each shot then announced the scores. In the finals, a perfect shot scores 10.9 points and fractions of points are deducted for what percentage of the shot doesn't fall within the 10-point ring. Still, he fired a perfect second shot.
"I heard the crowd go nuts for that," he said. "That kind of got my heart rate up, but I was able to immediately bring it back."
It came down to a heart-pounding finish, with Germany's Christian Lusch shooting nine consecutive 10s, before finishing with a 9.9. Emmons, who learned at age 14 how to shoot from an FBI firearms instructor, secured the gold medal with his final two shots, two scores of 10.6.
Even before this, Emmons had made history. He arrived in Athens as the first American to qualify for three rifle events in 40 years. In his first event, the 10-meter air rifle, he failed to advance to the finals. But now he has a medal. And today, he will compete in his strongest event - the 50-meter three-position rifle, the event where Sports Illustrated predicted he'd win gold - with what has become his favorite gun.
At a post-victory press conference, Emmons said he'll take a a break after the Olympics, then eye the 2008 Games in Beijing.
"For the past eight months I have been focused entirely on training, but when I get back (to the U.S.), I am going to start working towards my MBA at UCCS (University of Colorado-Colorado Springs)," he said. "I had initially planned on going back to Alaska. But my plan for now is that I will hold off for a few years and continue to train for 2008 in Colorado Springs.
Standing with the gold medal draped around his neck on Friday, Emmons smiled and said that he'd like to find out who damaged his gun.
"I'd like to know so I could shake their hand and say thanks," he said.
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