London • One of the Olympic Games’ most tragic figures in recent years was in more pain in this, his third Olympics. Only this time Matt Emmons’ agony wasn’t in his heart.
It was in his back.
Emmons, whose loss of gold medals on his last shots in the past two Olympics drew sympathy from around the world, could not overcome a faulty back in the 10-meter air rifle competition here Monday.
The Colorado Springs resident got off to a slow start and finished 35th in the prelims. “My back hurts, man,” Emmons said. “I haven’t been able to figure out, especially in air rifle, what I’m doing wrong in my position that’s causing it to hurt so much.”
For perspective, air rifle isn’t Emmons’ specialty. He wasn’t expected to medal. But the back problem that has plagued him the past few months has not gone away.
And his best event, the 50-meter rifle 3 position, is next Monday.
After the competition, Emmons walked up to his wife, Katy, who shoots for the Czech Republic. She lightly put her hand on his. She knows what he’s going through.
“Katy was watching me and she said my body was just swaying back and forth,” Emmons said. “I could see that in my hold. Like when I’m looking through my sights, it’ll come down and settle down on the bull(‘s eye) then move to the right or the left and then back and then hold. It’s just not consistent.”
He shot 97 out of 100 in his first of six series of a competition won by Romania’s Alin George Moldoveanu, who missed a medal in Beijing four years ago by .08 of an inch.
Emmons has been as diligent about working on his back as he has on his shot. He has worked with the sports staff from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and in London. He’s used cardio physiologists, chiropractors and the sports medical staff in the Olympic Village.
Nothing has helped.
“It actually felt good coming into today,” Emmons said. “My back felt good. My body felt good. It’ s just that when I got in position my body wasn’t listening.”
Keep in mind a shooter stands and shoots in a near motionless position over a 105-minute period during qualifying. The stiff shooting jacket helps but back braces aren’t allowed.
“I’m using so much muscle to try and hold still,” Emmons said. “Imagine you’re tensing your bicep for 30 minutes, it’s going to fire up and you won’t be able to tense it at all. That’s what my back’s doing.”
The one concession is that he’s back at the Olympics. People remember him more for shooting at the wrong target in Athens and shooting too soon in Beijing - both on last shots that could have won him gold - than they do for his gold medal in 50-meter rifle prone in Athens.
And Olympic shooting is huge. The shooting grounds are in the far southeast corner of London at the Royal Artillery Barracks, housing for the British Army. Each building converted into a shooting range is decorated with giant blue or red circles to resemble very large bullet holes.
While the Games’ biggest flaw to date has been swaths of empty seats in “sold-out” venues, on Monday fans were turned away at shooting qualifying.
“I live for this,” Emmons said. “I love being part of it. I live the Olympic ideals every day. This is what I build towards. It’s special.”
It will be even more special if he medals next Monday. Jason Parker is the U.S. medal hope in that event, but it should be easier on Emmons’ back. Prelims are only 40 shots instead of 60, and the gun is heavier, which should help his balance.