As many readers here are aware, I am an Olympic Pistol Shooter. I’ve been shooting this style of sport for about six years. In that time, I’ve received several NRA National Titles, four USA National titles, a National Record, three Continental titles including winning my Olympic quota, and currently waiting for my Olympic debut in Tokyo 2020 (now Tokyo 202One). In preparation for my career as an Olympic Athlete, I have had the opportunity to learn many things.
I recently listened to a talk that gave me some insight on leadership. A leader at church was reflecting on the wonder of the night sky. He was gazing at the beauty of the stars and how special it is that they produce their very own sources of light. He then directed his attention to the moon. It was full, and the light it was reflecting was not only beautiful, but also helped illuminate the forest surrounding him allowing him to easily walk around his campsite without the need of a flashlight.
This made me reflect on a common perception of leadership. Being a leader will occasionally require the ability to produce your own light. For me, however, I have noticed the moments I felt like I was a successful leader were not the moments I was trying my hardest to shine. Rather, when I have looked to others for advice, or sought council from those that I respected, and then reflected their ideas and inspiration. Reflection of other’s light is not something to be ashamed of or look down on. It’s a way of supporting and promoting each other. It can help to lead the way through things like forests, campsites, decision making, and tough situations… Life.
I’ve had many opportunities to be a leader, make big decisions, and give my opinions and advice to others, but looking to others for help in my trials and acting on their advice, has shaped me and helped me to stand in front of you today. I hope to share a few of these experiences, as well as a few of my favorite quotes from incredible leaders.
Even though I have only been participating in this sport for a few years, I have grown up shooting with my family. Spending many quality hours with my dad and grandpa, and we would go out on the weekends to have a little fun at the range. Eventually, my dad felt that I should take a hunter safety class to further my firearms safety education and at to complete a requirement for some of the competitions they had for “my age group.” When he signed me up, I had to have special permission because the class was for 12 to 16-year-old kids, and I was only ten. The class was all boys enrolled. Since I was a girl, they had to have a second coach that was female to work alongside me for the positioning and physical work. I had a little pink rifle that my dad made for me, complete with my name carved in the side. I would come to class with my cute outfits’ that mom helped pick out with ribbons in my hair. I sat amongst a sea of young men. No one thought much of it, until our first competition. I ended up in first place. I suspect many brushed it off as fluke. My next competition, I took second place. I felt disappointment at not taking first place again. The young men and their parents were upset that I had been doing well and felt my rifle was giving me an advantage. Therefore, a new rule put in place that would mean I wasn’t able to bring my pretty rifle to the next competition. When the third competition rolls around, and I was then required to shoot a rifle that is almost as big as me that I have only shot once or twice before. It didn’t make much of a difference which gun I shot, because at the end I was carrying my first-place trophy. These competitions were my first experiences with people being envious of my accomplishments, and I look back and reflect on it often. I couldn’t let it bother me if people were upset or angry that I won. I was having fun and doing something I loved. I made this the most important thing.
Henry Ford said, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” Over the years since those first competitions, I realized I could have been disappointed or put off by the boys and their parents. I could have ended my shooting career years before it would have begun, but I looked to the positives. I enjoyed myself, learned a lot, and the greatest r
eward was spending time with my dad. My change in attitude was the ultimate remedy to what I could have found as fault. It was the perfect lesson to my future self on how to cope with difficult situations, and a lesson that I reflect on often.
Fast forward, and I’m getting ready for my first week of college at the University of Utah. Most of my friends attended BYU, so I felt pretty alone at the U. I went to freshman welcome week to investigate some student clubs and hoped to find some friends. I stumbled onto the University of Utah Marksmanship Club. There were a ton of girls signing up, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to make friends while keeping up on a hobby I loved with my dad back home. I asked what type of shooting they all did, and the members said different types including the type of target shooting I was familiar with. … I found out they were liars. I was invited for the tryouts. I ventured to the basement of the Naval Sciences building where the range was located. To get there, you had to go through the men’s locker room… It was dark, damp from flooding that summer, and kind of stinky from the lockers. Not at all welcoming. The tryouts were conducted by members of the team and went by really fast. I left feeling a little disappointed and like it wasn’t going to pan out. Along with that, the guns they were shooting seemed to be plastic toy guns. I thought they were stupid and told my dad about it. I believe his exact line was “No kidding Lex. You didn’t think you would be shooting the big guns the first day they met you, did you? Besides, you’re not shooting regular guns, these are Olympic style guns. Stick with it for a week or two. You might like it more than you realize.”
Soon after that day of tryouts, I received an email from the coach, Matt DeLong, inviting me to join the team. I joined in along two other freshmen guys. As we all started on the same level, we were required to complete scores on a worksheet before we could graduate onto our better-quality guns. Our coach also gave us a special challenge. Whomever graduated to the next level first would also get to start .22 training and have a locker on the range for all our gun supplies. A locker was a coveted item amongst the entire team. The three of us got started, and I was enjoying the time spent with my team on the range as a freshman. I was progressing rather quickly through my required scores, and my coach was truly impressed. We spoke about my progression, and he shared that I was in the lead, however one of the guys was close on my heels. We were required to provide coach with our targets to be signed off every day. He informed me that for every target I turned it to be signed off, my teammate would turn in the very next day. Coach then asked what I was doing with my targets after I got them signed. I took a few back to my dorm, but otherwise would put them in the recycle bin just outside the range on my way home. My coach asked me to start tearing them in half before I threw them out. It hadn’t occurred to me until two weeks later why he asked me to do this. I was able to have my last few targets signed off and move up to level two, while my teammate was still stuck where he was when I started tearing my targets. I never discussed it him or anyone else, however my coach and I knew he was cheating. He later announced he was quitting after barely reaching from level. He claimed that he was being treated unfairly and I was favored because I was a girl. It seemed that the team had caught on and shared that they had figured out that he was cheating by using my targets. One member even shared that he had witnessed him pulling it out of the recycling bin. No one saw him after that, until a few years later, and I ran into him on campus. He looked really upset, and so I asked what’s wrong. He had been caught plagiarizing an important paper and was at risk for being expelled. Ray Kroc once said, “The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.” I’m grateful I set my standards high, even when shooting was just a hobby and not a career path. It helped me achieve the scores I needed, and it also helped me acquire my Physics degree. I find that I am drawn to leaders that hold themselves to higher standards, and I try to emulate that.
At the collegiate level, most of the pistol matches are run by the NRA. When I was transitioning from NRA Collegiate Shooting to USA Shooting competitions, I found no clear direction and was looking for someone to follow. At this point, my collegiate coach was trying to help and give suggestions, however, the rules at this level were different and seemed to change frequently. We were at a loss as to which matches were important. I was told the names of people to ask for help, but I quickly learned that in a sport where ultimately only two people get to go to the Olympics every four years, its every woman for herself. It was becoming apparent that if I truly wanted to commit to going to the Olympics for Women’s Pistol, I was going to need to find my own path. As John C Maxwell has said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” It was time for me to make my way.
Perseverance has helped make that path a little smoother. For the athletes following in my footsteps, I endeavor to make that transition easier for them. My road has not been easy, and I still have daily obstacles, however, overcoming these troubles has helped become who I am, as well as helping me to recognize how much this sport means to me.
I got my start by attending USA Shooting Nationals. It was… a mediocre match. As with all matches, I went in with the hope to win. However, I understood that for my first Nationals, a medal might be out of reach. I went in only seeking experience. That type of mindset helped me make finals in both Women’s Air Pistol and Women’s Sport Pistol. After this competition, other athletes looked at me as a potential threat.
I continued to improve while training in Utah. I had the good fortune of being invited occasionally to the Olympic Training Center by a previous National Pistol Coach. Although it felt like it was a training camp to point out that I wasn’t as good as the coach’s favorites, I still learned as much as I could. I tried to forge relationships with my teammates. However, this didn’t go so well. As mentioned previously, it’s hard to make friends when your teammates are also your competition. Thankfully, I was able to find a few good people. Eventually we were comfortable enough to reach out to each other for advice.
One of those people, now my friend and teammate, is Sandra Uptagraft. Orrin Woodward said, “Average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar.” This is exactly what Sandra did for me. She has been an athlete for much longer than I have, has a lot of experience, and is willing to share and advise others. She has had many national titles. Although she and I tend to battle it out for the top spot, and are often competitors, she is friendly and kind.
I had hoped to follow her to the Army Marksmanship Unit after graduation from the University of Utah. That plan was cut short when the unit decided to cut the pistol program. Now, I was about to graduate from the U, and wasn’t really ready to continue on to law school, and yet found my plans were changed. I connected with the new National Coach, Elizabeth Callahan. She suggested I should move out to Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. I had lived in the training center the summer of 2016 as an intern for the USA Shooting media team during the Rio Olympics. I loved my experience working there and getting to train at the center. My life centered around the OTC, and I didn’t get the opportunity to connect with the community outside the center. So… when my coach recommended, I should move out to the training center permanently, I responded, “I don’t know. I am unsure.” She followed that up with, “Yeah, I think you’ll enjoy living there. I’ll expect your application by this weekend.” As Maya Angelou said, “Nothing will work unless you do.”
After graduation, I packed my bags and moved out to Colorado. This time around, I worked extra hard at making this time better. I was put on a regular schedule of training and workouts, made some lifelong friends (including my wonderful husband), and was assigned a new coach, Jason Turner.
Eleanor Roosevelt, “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.” Jason truly exemplifies this ideology. As an athlete, Jason was very thoughtful in his actions. As my coach, and now the current National Pistol Team Coach, it is apparent that he seeks what is best for his athletes not only with his head, but also with his heart. He has a passion for this sport, and he passes it on to his athletes.
At the time that I move to Colorado, my scores were good, but stagnant. I was struggling to improve. When Jason started working with me, it my have been small at first, but I was really improving quickly. My scores went from being competitive nationally to being competitive on an international level. I really noticed it at Winter Airgun 2017, a major national competition for air pistol. It was less than six months after moving to the training center, but I was able to shoot scores that put me well above and beyond my fellow competitors.
Unfortunately, even with scores like that, it couldn’t save me from the disappointment that was to follow. The day after the competition, I was officially told the United States Olympic Committee decided to stop funding the pistol program. Because of this, I would need to move out of the dorms before the end of the year, effectively making me homeless. Right after receiving this news, the athletes were called to a meeting to meet the new USA Shooting CEO. He spent the first hour taking about how things were going to get better. He asked how everyone’s week was going. I couldn’t contain myself much longer. I looked up at him and said, “Not so great.” A teammate spoke in, “Why are you so upset? You just handedly won another National competition.” Although he was correct, I paused for a moment looked up at the CEO and stated, “It’s hard to have a good week when you find out you’re going to be homeless two weeks before Christmas.” That effectively ended that meeting. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Not a whole lot of people forgot what I said at that meeting, but they also have not forgotten the feeling from that meeting. This was a very serious issue that would not just effect pistol, but USA Shooting as a whole. Funding would need to be found for the deficit, or the program would end. This was a risk all the programs could face. It didn’t require a speech to make that feeling known. It was there with just one solid sentence. It reminds me of how powerful words can be.
As the athletes start to leave the conference room, and I was approached by a woman I had never met before. She looked at me and said, “Hi! I’m Caitlin. Do you want to move in with me?” I almost said yes on the spot. Something in me told me she would be a great friend. After a couple more conversations, we were moving into an apartment on the south end of town. It was about twenty minutes from the training center, and twenty minutes from the USA Shooting Shotgun range. Caitlin Connor was a champion shotgun shooter. She would soon become the World Champion in women’s skeet, and one of my greatest mentors when it came to navigate the world of sponsors and self-promotion. Having friends that you can turn to is important. Having friends that support you even without knowing you are priceless.
After moving in with Caitlin, I was able to get back to a regular schedule of training, working out, and preparing for my competitions. It was a long year, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to prove the USOPC they had made a mistake in taking away our funding. However, all that pressure caused my performance to not be where I wanted to be. I pushed myself too hard and wound up injuring myself. It meant I had to be very selective about my training, because there were still very important competitions ahead. Particularly the Championships of the Americas in Mexico. It was my first good opportunity to win an international competition. I prepared myself carefully, and I was especially cautious in how I cared for my injury. I competed in air pistol first. I worked hard to stay focused and keep my head in the game. I could feel the injury, and it distracted me too much. I ended up in second place. A good place, but not what I needed for a quota.
Quotas are like tickets for the Olympics. They can be won by the athletes, but the quotas go to the country the athlete represents. The country’s national governing body then decides how the quotas will be given to their athletes.
For us, there will be two competitions called Olympic Trails. The top athletes from those competitions then receive the quota spots. That second-place finish did not give me the quota I needed, and it was incredibly frustrating. I felt guilty because my competitor that won was a friend from Canada, and I know she really needed a win for her program. I knew I needed to be proud of my finish, but I stuck in my disappointment that I wasn’t a point higher. This was a turning point. I could have pouted about this and ruined my chances at doing well in sport pistol, but coach whipped me into shape and helped me recognize the significance of my mental game in my upcoming match the next day. He helped me realize I needed to be back on my game and ready to go for sport pistol. This match, I had a much better approach. I knew that the pressure was on, but I needed to redirect that energy into more constructive thoughts like my visualization of how each shot would got go to handle good and bad shots during the competition. It was a really tough match. I was constantly battling myself either managing my excitement when I was doing well or manage my disappointment when it wasn’t. It was challenging, but I made it into finals. Here we go again, I’m nervous again. I’m thinking a lot of “if” statements. If I win this… If I lose… If if if. If statements come from thinking in the future. They are often based or paired with past thinking about what happened that one time. Future and Past thoughts will not help you now. You are in the present. Why let your mind leave you for these useless thoughts? I learned the power of being present in that final. Looking back, it almost felt like a trance. I wasn’t thinking of what would happen or previous bad shots. I was focused on each and every individual thought. I was focused on each and every individual breath. The final went on and on. It was getting closer to the end. I’m watching the other women around me be eliminated one by one. Finally, it was me and Cuba. We had five shots left. I had the lead, but not by much. The call was given for those last shots. One after another they left the gun. It was a perfect series in every aspect. I turn to look at the score board. I had won. A gold medal and a quota. It was right there. At the podium, they raised the American flag high and played the National Anthem. I finally got to raise the flag for my country. It was an incredible moment that I will never forget.
That was one year ago. Since then, I’ve continued my training and pushed my scores higher and higher. I’m seeing dramatic improvement every day. Unfortunately, I do not have better news to report on pistol funding, but with every day there is fresh hope. I am learning from these challenges, and it has given me interesting stories to say the very least. These lessons including cultivating sponsors, running a nonprofit, building a business, and managing social media. I have had more constructive conversations with USA Shooting’s Board of Directors and our Athlete Representatives on proposals and solutions to issues. I know it will not fix everything. Even Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.”
I hope that my ripples will provide support and assistance to those coming up behind me so that our incredible pistol team will become stronger. My greatest hope is that I will one day be a leader like so many of the leaders I have quoted today, my favorite being a leader like Jim Rohn describes when he says, “The challenge of leadership is to be strong but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not a bully; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” I strive each day to able to lead the way for future shooters and future leaders alike.
It is my daily goal to be a light to others, and I look forward to shining for my country in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.