Emmons’ Olympic bronze beats the alternative

LONDON — You hear a lot about the struggle of an Olympian, about years of work and sweat and tears and pain and doubt with no guarantee of success. It’s a journey that can build all sorts of mental and physical toughness.

Not to mention lending all sorts of perspective.

Failure will do that to a person.

Cancer, too.

Matt Emmons might be the happiest and proudest owner of a bronze medal at these or any Olympics. He couldn’t stop smiling Monday, which I assume happens when the weight of a few elephants is removed from your shoulders.

Emmons finally has his medal in 50-meter three-position rifle, although he had to wait for scores to be tabulated following yet another awful final shot.

Yes. He did it again.

He is the U.S. shooter who twice before had a gold medal in his hand when entering a final shot of three positions, only to drop it each time and get nothing. In 2004, he hit the wrong target and finished eighth in Athens. Four years ago, he fired prematurely, missed the bull’s-eye and finished fourth in Beijing.

Picture the anguish.

Gold wasn’t an option Monday at Royal Artillery Barracks (how cool a name is that for a shooting venue?) because of an Italian named Niccolo Campriani, who shot an Olympic record in qualifying and didn’t do anything crazy in the final, like miss the target or shoot himself in the foot or fall asleep in standing position.

But the silver medal was Emmons’ to lose, and he did.

The highest possible score for a shot is 10.9. His final eight of 10 shots went 10.1, 10.5, 10.4, 9.9, 10.7, 10.6, 10. 5 and …

7.6.

"I was a lot more nervous than I wanted to be and it just kept building to that last shot," Emmons said. "I was shaking so much. I just told myself, ‘Make the last one the best you can.’ I was hoping it was still worth something, and when I saw it was a bronze medal, I couldn’t have been happier. To be on the medals podium at an Olympics after all that has happened is very special."

Silver went to Kim Jong-hyun of South Korea, but it wasn’t the color of his medal that affected Emmons most. It’s that he earned one in this event.

He won gold in Athens and a silver in Beijing for 50-meter rifle prone, but the three-positions discipline is his best and one in which he has won World Cup titles. It is also the place of his greatest collapses.

They probably stung a little more before 2010 and a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. His daughter was just a year old at the time. Surgery was needed. Losing gold medals suddenly didn’t seem that big a deal.

He is 31 and healthy now, on medication for the remainder of his life, thankful for his recovery. So, too, is his wife, Katerina, a Czech shooter he met when she came to console him after the missed target in Athens. They live and train in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"He has been positive the whole time, but it’s been tough with someone always reminding him about the past," she said. "He doesn’t want to be remembered as a failure. He had two Olympic medals before this. But because of (the cancer) he knows what this means in the big picture. Right now, the most important thing in the world to him is getting home to give our daughter a hug and kiss."

It’s a perspective thing: Emmons has said that had he won gold in Athens and Beijing, had he executed properly on those last shots in three positions, he might not have handled the cancer as well or be the person who so graciously accepted bronze Monday.

He could do this for countless more years, be near the top of his sport into his 40s, challenge for more gold medals, take more final shots with everything riding on them. He isn’t so sure, though.

His was a look of fulfillment Monday, of acceptance, of relief.

"I play to win, but understand there are things much more important to life than pulling a trigger and winning medals," Emmons said. "I have my health and a family, and that’s way more important than this game will ever be.

"The more I learned about it, I figured out if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid cancer is the one you want. But for that first week, I was sweating bullets. ‘What does this mean? Am I going to live? Who cares what it means for my shooting career? Am I going to see my daughter grow up? Am I going to grow old with my wife?’ It was tough, and not a lot of fun."

Monday was fun for Matt Emmons.

He didn’t settle for bronze. He embraced it as much as anyone has.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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