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On the morning of 6 August, 19-year-old Thrasher stormed her way into the Olympic record books with victory in the final of the women’s 10 metre air rifle. Ranked just 23rd in the world, the teenager pulled off a surprise victory over Du Li (CHN), Olympic champion in 2004 and 2008, who had led the way after qualifying. Watching over the drama was IOC President Thomas Bach who later presented the medals.
Thrasher, a student in West Virginia, performed solidly throughout the competition and secured victory with her last shot, finishing with a final score of 208.0, setting a new Olympic record. After a thrilling contest she finished just one point ahead of Du (207.0). A new system known as ‘the Australian’ was used in the final, with the lowest-ranked shooter being knocked out after each round until there are just two competitors left in the battle for gold.
“I’m so happy to kick off the Rio Games with a gold medal for my country,” exclaimed Thrasher, who had finished sixth in qualifying. “This summer has been a real whirlwind. I’ve travelled all over the world and this is the icing on the cake! I knew I had a decent chance of reaching the final but I managed to put it out of my mind. I just wanted to shoot at my best level and it paid off!
“About halfway through when I got into first position it kind of became clear to me that I was in with a shout of winning a medal, but I quickly pushed that thought out of my mind and focused on my breathing and taking one shot at a time.” The young American had her best shot in the very first round of the final, scoring 10.9. “I said to myself, ‘No way!’. It’s really hard to move on after a shot like that!”
Du Li was making her return to competition after a two-year hiatus. “I didn’t expect to do so well. It’s difficult because the rules have changed and I still need to get used to them. My family have been very supportive. I have a little girl aged six and I don’t have enough time to spend with her. I’m a little bit disappointed but I’m also very proud of myself!”
The bronze medal went to Yi Siling of China, the Olympic champion in 2012, with a score of 185.4.
In the men’s 10m air rifle, Italy’s Niccolo Campriani went one better than the silver he won at London 2012, topping the podium following a fierce duel with Ukraine’s Serhiy Kulish. Bronze went to Vladimir Maslennikov of Russia.
Campriani became the fourth ever double medallist in the 10m, after Artem Khadjibekov (RUS), Zhu Qinan (CHN) and Johann Riederer (GER). The final was notable for the absence of two big names, 2012 Olympic champion Alin George Moldeveanu (ROU) and world number one Cao Yifei (CHN), both of whom failed to make it through qualifying. 2008 Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra of India also failed to make the podium, finishing in fourth place, just in front of world record holder Péter Sidi of Hungary.
The 28-year-old Campriani, whose partner Petra Zubasling was also competing in the shooting events in Rio, was taking part in his third Olympics After a quiet start, he eventually took the lead to set up a battle with Kulish in the final round, Campriani shot 10.6 followed by a 10.7 to beat his opponent by 1.5 points with an Olympic record of 206.1.
“Today I tried to have as many happy thoughts as possible,” said the Florence native after the final. “Fear is always lurking in the corners. In the end it was all about finding something positive and happy to be able to keep going. My parents have helped me a lot over the last four years but I won’t go into details, I don’t want to cry!”
Kulish also enjoyed the final. “It is actually a very strange feeling but tomorrow I think I’ll wake up and realise what has happened. I liked this final. I think I managed to do everything I wanted to do. Until the 13th shot I was in it but then maybe I worried too much and I finished second.”
On 11 August, Germany’s Barbara Engleder won a hotly contested women’s 50m rifle 3 positions final and claimed a first ever medal in her fourth and final Olympic Games.
Engleder remained near the top of the leaderboard throughout the kneeling, prone and standing positions of the competitions for a total score of 458.6, a new Olympic record and only 0.2 points ahead of Olympic debutant Zhang Binbin of China. Zhang’s compatriot Du Li, 2008 Olympic champion and favourite on the day, took bronze after a battle with Engleder. Du was even leading at one point during the standing portion of the competition before being eliminated in the final rounds to leave Zhang to battle for victory against the German sharpshooter.
Engleder didn’t realise how close it was between Zhang and herself. She scored a disappointing 9.0 on the final shot while Zhang recorded an excellent 10.4. However she had built up enough of a lead to be able to hold on to first place. When she realised she had won she dropped to her knees in disbelief.
Standing on top of the podium she spread her arms wide to mimic the famous Christ the Redeemer statue which overlooks Rio. Her hard-fought victory only began to sink in when the German national anthem began to play. “At first I couldn’t believe it and secondly I didn’t know whether I should start singing or not. But then I suddenly started singing,” she explained.
Zhang, 27, admitted she had been nervous ahead of her first ever Olympic Games. “All I told myself was to get this shot right, to get every shot right. I didn’t actually think my last shot was good enough.”
For Engleder, whose previous best finish was sixth, at London 2012, Rio provided her with a chance to bow out on a high. “This is my last Olympic Games and almost the last shooting competition,” she said. “I’m not that young anymore! I‘m almost 34 and my son needs a steady life and he doesn’t have at the moment due to my shooting.”
Germany’s second gold medal in the rifle events went to Olympic debutant Henri Junghaenel on 12 August in the 50m rifle prone final at Deodoro. Having scraped into the final taking the last of the eight places available, the 28-year-old University of Kentucky graduate soon established an early lead with several near perfect scores of 10.8.
Kim Jong-hyun of the Republic of Korea won his second Olympic silver medal after scoring a perfect 10.9 in a shoot-off with the Russian Kirill Grigoryan, whose bronze medal was the first ever for his country in this event.
Junghaenel’s final score was 209.5 in 20 shots, 1.3 points in front of Kim but still behind his world record finals score of 211.2 posted in 2013. When he realised he had won gold, the German jumped up despite the bulky specially-weighted stability clothing used in the competition and waved his rifle in the air to celebrate his victory.
After four years of intensive preparation for the Games, Junghaenel explained that he started the final furious with himself for his performance in qualifying and had told himself that he needed to pull himself together. “At the beginning, I was really nervous so I was happy I could still make my shots,” he revealed.
He was quick to credit his time at university, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, as playing a major part in his success. “Training conditions are perfect in the United States. I also think it is very helpful to have something besides shooting for your mind,” he said. “The combination of college and shooting is just awesome.”
After winning gold in the 10m rifle on the first day of the men’s rifle competitions, Campriani was back six days later to defend his title in the 50m rifle 3 positions. The Italian only just made it into the final, finishing eighth in qualifying. After trailing his Russian competitor Sergei Kamenskiy for most of the competition, Campriani finally overhauled him with his last shot despite scoring a disappointing 9.2 to finish with a total score of 458.8 points. In a nail-biting decider Kamenskiy, who finished just behind with 458.5, threw away the gold with a poor final shot of 8.3. The bronze medal went to the 21-year-old Frenchman Alexis Raynaud, who scored 448.4.
Kamenskiy breezed through the qualifying rounds, top scoring with 1184, only two points off the world record, and he needed only one hour and 35 minutes of the allotted two hours and 45 minutes to do so.
“The last shot was the last for everyone, not just for me,” explained Campriani. “I have a few bad memories and it’s hard for everyone. I’m sorry that happened to Sergei Kamenskiy today but I could have ended up with silver as well, I was already happy with my performance. Gold is almost too much!”
“It’s crazy,” he added. “Kamenskiy had a huge lead in qualifying. I think he was the best shooter today. But those are the rules. In the final, you start from zero.”
The biggest surprise was the early exit of world number one Matthew Emmons (USA), who was knocked out in qualifying after finishing way back in 19th place. The 35-year-old has had a decidedly ill-starred run of form at the Olympics in his preferred event. Aside from his bronze medal at London 2012, the American finished fourth in Beijing in 2008 after fluffing his last shot and finished 8th in Athens 2004 after shooting at his neighbour’s target.
“This gold medal is very different,” Campriani said after his second victory of the week. “Today, I came into the final trailing. I started off in eighth place. I was very lucky to make it into the final. I just didn’t have any more energy. My third final in three competitions and watching my girlfriend [Petra Zubasling] shoot isn’t easy either!” Zublasing just missed out on the podium in the women’s 3 positions, finishing fourth.
“It’s all over now and I’m on holiday at last. That’s what I was thinking about. I’m so tired! Sixteen years of competitive shooting! It was probably my last competition. I have so many great memories, it’s the last of a long series and I want to thank everyone who made it possible,” he added.
Meanwhile, Raynaud had mixed feelings about his surprise bronze medal. “I came here to win, not just to make up the numbers,” said the young Frenchman, who finished runner-up in the 2016 European Championships. “I wanted to be ready for 2016 not 2020. I don’t want to waste time. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices and I wanted them to pay off now. I work just as hard as the others. I have less experience than some of the older guys but maybe I’m crazier!”