FORT BENNING, Ga. –
Three Army Reserve Soldiers are hoping to join Team USA in Tokyo this year, relying on their shooting skills to get them to the international stage.
First Lt. Amber English was 5 or 6 years old when she first shot a pistol during a camping trip with her family. The Colorado-native started competitively shooting by her late teens, but her weapon of choice was one that let her embrace being outside.
“I tried rifle and pistol and it was inside, and I was like I know there was another discipline — the shotgun discipline — and it was outside and just felt more my speed. I was super outdoorsy growing up, so being outside just felt like being at home to me. I did gymnastics growing up for a long time so the competitiveness was still there. And it just kind of started with that,” English said.
English joined the military in 2017 as a logistics officer after getting to know other Soldiers through her travels. Though it was a decision that did not come until a year prior, she says it was “a natural progression to be absorbed into this family.”
“So, I didn’t decide that I was going to join the Army until 2016. I have traveled with a lot of the guys— who are currently on the Army Marksmanship Unit — since about 2010, … and they were kind of like a second family to me,” she said.
Typical training days vary depending on what she is training for. English describes international and domestic competitions as polar opposites of each other, demanding different focuses.
“Our domestic matches are more of like a marathon, so to get ready for that I’ll do a lot of repetition and fine-tuning. I do a lot more quantity versus quality in the beginning, then I start to ramp that down and do the quality,” she said. “Overseas is like the opposite. It’s more like a sprint, so we shoot less targets, and I focus on going out there and shooting a perfect run off the bat or I get to the point where if I don’t shoot a perfect score, I force myself to put the gun down and walk away from it and come back and sleep on it overnight so I have it figured out for the next day when I come back.”
One lesser-thought about requirement of preparation is hydration, English says, because lack of water can affect vision.
She set her sights on 2020 because of “unfinished business,” after coming close to make the team four years ago.
“I was an Olympic alternative in 2016 and I had kind of a battle to even get there, to be honest. I unexpectedly lost my dad in between Olympic trials in 2016 … that was definitely a big challenge for me and I was super close to making that team after all of that,” English said.
Her dad was an Olympic Training Center resident athlete.
English says her training for the Olympics is “definitely a four-year process,” and though she has been at it for a long time, she is always learning.
In 2006, 1st Lt. Sarah Beard began practicing air rifle in her basement. Like English, her family has a background in shooting, with her father, William, being a member of the 1984 Olympic Shooting Team.
“I remember seeing a lot of memorabilia from all the places he got to travel to around our house … and he really wasn’t the one that wanted me to start shooting. I kept asking him and bugging him to get me to the range. Finally he did,” she said. “We were able to shoot together for a lot of competitions, and I thought it was really cool. I fell in love with it from there.”
Her dad also shot the rifle, which is what helped her train in this specific sport because he had all of the required equipment already.
Beard initially considered active duty, but the Army Reserve offered her the opportunity to pursue dual passions. “I wanted to go both officer and be able to shoot and compete,” she said.
As for getting ready for a competition, like the Olympics, Beard says it requires a lot more than training time on the range.
“It really encompasses almost every aspect of your life. I do meet with a nutritionist; we go over not only daily meal plans, but also a plan of what the best way to fuel my body during a match is. It’s like two hours and 45 minutes — that’s a long time to have to compete at your top. I also work with sports psychologists; I do a lot of mindfulness training because there’s a lot of the mental aspect that’s in this sport. I also go to the gym quite a bit for injury prevention,” she said.
She sees her strongest ability ahead of the March trials as being able to bring international experience from so many different matches.
Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft took second place in December for the first round of Olympic trials for the air pistol and sport pistol, just slightly missing the lead by two points. And she has a strong background in competing that goes back to 1991, winning her first gold medal in the Pan American Games in 2003.
The Alabama-native has served in every component of the military, initially starting with the Army National Guard in 1989, and she had no experience with shooting until she enlisted.
“Prior to joining the military, I never fired a weapon before. The first thing I ever shot was the M16 in basic training,” she said. “I guess that introduction to firearms intrigued me enough to where when I was a student at the University of Southern California, our ROTC wanted to start a competitive shooting team and I was immediately onboard.”
Uptagrafft started with an air pistol, realizing she had a natural talent for it off the bat. Her performance at collegiate matches gained her recruitment to the Army Marksmanship Unit. She also credits her husband, Eric, with being “the greatest influence on her shooting career,” according to her USA Shooting Team biography. He was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in shooting.
Uptagrafft explains that both her crafts, as a soldier and as a competitive shooter, mutually benefit each other.
“Being a competitive shooter has helped my career as a soldier by teaching me things like attention to detail, mental stamina, perseverance, and that will to win, and vice versa … as a soldier you are instilled with a never quit attitude. You know, discipline, physical fitness and endurance, and always striving to do the best you can at everything. That also translates into helping me as a competitive shooter,” she said.
Uptagrafft is now a member of the Army Reserve Service Pistol Team.
Follow https://www.usashooting.org to keep up with the current schedule of upcoming Olympic trials for the USA Shooting Team.
Article previously published in Reserve + National Guard Magazine and used with permission.