London 2012: Is Matt Emmons America's unluckiest Olympian?

Matt Emmons

Can you be this unlucky and still win an Olympic gold medal?

Matt Emmons is a genial all-American character, smiling eyes peering out from beneath his baseball cap at what will become this summer's Olympic shooting range, next door to London's Woolwich Artillery Barracks.

But those eyes have smiled through more misfortune, in their 31 years, than most Olympic marksmen have had to bear.

For simplicity's sake, let's go chronologically and begin in the build-up to Athens 2004. Emmons, set to make his debut on the US Olympics shooting team, was at a training camp.

"We got there and I went to shoot some air rifle - and I was shooting baaaad," he recalls. "I thought, 'Hey, maybe it's a bad day. I'll go and shoot something else, that'll make things better.'

"So I went to shoot some prone [50m rifle prone, an Olympic event]. I put the first bullet in, and it was really gritty - like there was sand in it. Well, that's kinda odd. I put the next one in, exactly the same.

"I looked at it and the chamber was really torn up like someone had taken a small screwdriver, stuck it in the chamber, and gouged it out. I looked at my air rifle - same thing. That destroys the accuracy completely. Someone had sabotaged my guns."

With Olympic trials imminent, Emmons had to borrow a female team-mate's gun. Not only did he come through the trial, he went on to win gold at Athens in the prone event with the same gun.

"A year later she retired and I got to keep the gun I won the Olympics with," says Emmons. "And I've competed up until now with that same gun.

"We never found out who the saboteur was but, frankly, it had to be one of my team-mates. Those were the only people that had access to the area where my gun would've been. I'd like to know so I could say thanks, because what I ended up with was better than what I had."

Sabotage cannot account for what happened next. Emmons, one gold medal safely in the bag, reached the final of his next event - the 50m rifle three positions - and, with one shot remaining, held a three-point lead.

It is almost impossible to lose from that position. Emmons found a way.

"Going into the last shot, that far in the lead, I was just worried about calming my body down so I could shoot the best I could," he remembers.

"I came down on the target... boom - shot the shot - then looked at the TV monitor, and there's nothing there.

"It turned out, after a minute or so, we figured out I'd shot the target to the right of me."

Emmons had been so relaxed, he shot the target of Austria's Christian Planer instead of his own. His score of nil sent him from first to last place.

Four years later, we reach the Beijing Games. Emmons' travails in Athens are now the stuff of shooting legend, but a comparatively uneventful silver medal in the rifle prone shows that's all in the past, surely.

Not a chance. Again, his second event - the three positions - provided last-shot drama. Again, Emmons was in the lead. Again, he threw it all away.

"I felt really good," he insists. "I'd trained to shoot that last shot a bit quicker than I normally would, because I knew the crowd was going to react - in China, shooting is a big sport. It's very popular, there was a Chinese shooter in the final and I'd expected that would happen. I'm a slow shooter, typically, so I'd trained to shoot that shot a little bit quicker.

"Regardless, I did my pre-shot routine and I remember - as I'm looking through my sights, settling from 12 o'clock down into the bullseye - I got this calm feeling. 'We got this, we trained for this.' And as I'm doing this, I put my finger on my trigger.

"And I twitched. Just a little. Boom!

"The shot went off, I scored 4.4 [out of 10.9], and that put me in fourth place."

At least he hit the correct target, albeit with by far the worst shot of the Olympic tournament.

If nothing else, back-to-back Olympic anti-climaxes gave Emmons some perspective - and he would need all of it to deal with what came next.

In September 2010, Emmons developed thyroid cancer. He had the entire thyroid surgically removed and now says he has made a complete recovery, but is still monitored twice a year in case the cancer shows any sign of returning.

Back on track, Emmons has qualified for at least two events at London 2012 - and he knows spectators have learned to expect the unexpected if he makes any finals.

"I know what people know me for, but I take it with a grain of salt," he says. "I'm really proud of the way I handled those situations.

"I play to win but I understand you're not going to win every match, and there are things much more important to life than pulling a trigger and winning medals.

"I have my health and a family, and that's way more important than this game will ever be."

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