FORT BENNING, GA – They’ve pictured themselves there, in Olympic Stadium, walking through the tunnel out into the open air in front of thousands in the stands and millions watching on television. They have trained for that last shot that wins them the gold, reaching a goal they set one day when they realized they had a talent that few have.
For two soldiers from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU), when they walk through that tunnel July 27 in London it will be affirmation that the sacrifices made and determination to excel were all worth it.
“When I was young I was amazed at the look people had after winning in the Olympics,” said Staff Sgt. Michael McPhail, who will compete in Men’s 50-Meter Prone Rifle on Friday, Aug. 3. “The shock, then the happiness– the whole emotion they display after they win at the Olympics– it’s very powerful. It’s a life decision that this is what I am going to do. It’s not just in shooting or track and field. If you want to be the best in the world at checkers, you have to work your butt off. It’s just the way it is.”
McPhail and Staff Sgt. Josh Richmond both come from small towns and grew up shooting guns as a hobby. Never in their wildest dreams did they think they would join the Army, let alone make the U.S. Olympic team. But, here they both are, serving their country every day and training to do so on a different field of battle at the Olympics.
I WANTED TO SEE HOW GOOD AT ONE THING I COULD BE
Born and raised in tiny Darlington, where the cattle easily outnumber the people, McPhail lettered in three high school sports while growing up and shot rifle at a local indoor range every Tuesday and Thursday night so that he could get more accurate for hunting season.
“Shooting was something I picked up and was good at very quickly,” he said. “When I was 18 the goal was just to win the state championship and I did that, and I really thought shooting was going to continue as a hobby.”
The son of Dennis and Joyce McPhail decided to shoot on the rifle team while attending UW-Oshkosh. Soon he met other shooters who mentioned in passing that the USAMU would be a good place for him to reach his potential. After talking to unit personnel and his girlfriend-turned-wife, Kari, he made the decision to enlist in the Army.
“I never thought of the Army before,” said McPhail. “I was going to get my degree in business finance and work in that field. And, my goal when I came here was not to go to the Olympics. I wanted to see how good at one thing I could be. I accomplished that goal. The goals had to then shift and change.”
I WAS PRETTY GOOD FROM THE BEGINNING
Speaking of small towns, they don’t get much smaller than Hillsgrove, Pa. Richmond said it’s the type of town where families live next door to each other their entire lives. The great outdoors is where families bond and his was no different.
On day his uncle Jason set up a soda can and bribed his five-year old nephew to take his first-ever shot with a shotgun. He would give Richmond a five dollar bill if he hit the can. After an anxious moment, Richmond pulled the trigger. Uncle Jason handed over the five.
“I was a pretty good shot from the very beginning,” Richmond said. It was a fun hobby but I was getting really good at it and started shooting at 4-H clubs, and then eventually in the junior national championships. I started to get serious about it.”
Richmond graduated from high school in 2004 and then made what he calls “the best decision I ever made in my life besides marrying my wife, Scharri.” He enlisted in the Army in the fall that same year to join the USAMU and further his burgeoning career with the Olympics as the goal.
“Growing up, I never thought that the Army would be a route for me,” said Richmond, who will compete in double trap on Aug. 2. “My family was initially against it because it sounded too good to be true. I come from a very small town and we are all very patriotic, so the chance to shoot shotguns and represent my country is like having my cake and eating it too.”
UNIT LIKE NO OTHER
Both soldiers are emphatic when they talk about life in the Army and how it got them to this point. From the gunsmiths that build their guns to the teammates who push them to be at their very best every day, the camaraderie of the USAMU and goal-driven atmosphere is one of the driving forces that make them Olympians.
“If it wasn’t for this unit, I wouldn’t be going to the Olympics,” said McPhail. “The support we get is second to none. It’s unmatched. I came from ‘no-wheres-ville’ Wisconsin and now I am headed to London.”
“I am a soldier who is also an Olympian,” said Richmond. “I am where I am because I am a soldier. The way I get to train, the lessons I learned– the Army is why I am here.
I wear either the Army uniform or the Red, White and Blue every day of my life and I would have it no other way. It is extremely rewarding to represent my country in so many different ways.”
Both soldiers are arriving at the Olympics peaking, but they got there in different ways. Richmond earned his berth in 2011 after crossing the point-threshold established for performance at World Cup-level competitions. After doing so he volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan as part of the unit’s cross-functional team of marksmanship instructors teaching Afghan soldiers the proper way to shoot their weapons.
McPhail had to go through a grueling Olympic Trial on his home range at Fort Benning. Expectations were high and the competition was fierce, with a former gold medalist and several USAMU teammates in the field. He prevailed after three days of intense competition and will compete in London alongside teammate Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft.
Both shooters said they are confident that they are prepared for what awaits them in London. Olympic veterans in the unit have provided insight and given them advice about what to expect.
“I have been chasing this dream for ten years and getting there is a feat in itself,” said Richmond. “My goals are realistic. If I go over there and shoot the way I am capable of shooting and give it my absolute best shot, then I can live with that. Some days you just get beat. If I do my best, that’s all I can do.”
And, they said their Army training gives the pair an advantage over other rookie Olympians.
“It is my first Olympics, so I would say the biggest challenge is the unknown,” said McPhail. “I know it’s the Olympics, but the job, the mission, hasn’t changed. Go out, perform and let the chips fall where they may. This unit has gotten me ready for the moment.”
In the 50-Meter Prone Rifle competition, a shooter lies down flat to the ground in the prone position with their chest to ground, a position frequently executed by soldiers in the Army. Using a smallbore– in McPhail’s case an Anschutz 1613 he has been shooting since he was 17 and a member of the Darlington Rifle Club– the shooter tries to hit a bull’s-eye that is three-eighths of an inch in diameter and an X-ring inside the bull’s-eye that is no bigger than the pupil of your eye, using just their iron scope and no other telescopic or optical aid.
The Olympic qualification round for the Men’s 50-Meter Prone Rifle competition is scheduled to take place on Friday, Aug. 3, starting at 3 a.m. central standard time (9 a.m. in London). The finals are scheduled to be held that same day, beginning at 6 a.m. CST (12 noon in London).
To find out more about McPhail, including when he’s competing and how to watch his competition live, visit www.nbcolympics.com.