Why Women Rule the Rifle Range
By Pat Jordan
It’s the oddest of sports. Like darts, but without the exertion or the inebriated fans in dark, smoky bars. It’s played out in a small concrete bunker as bright and antiseptic as an operating room, but one that, oddly, smells of burnt gunpowder. The tile floors, walls and ceilings are white and illuminated by fluorescent lights that eliminate shadows. The sport is performed in silent stillness, its participants in a frozen tableau like those living statues in avant-garde art galleries. After two, three, four minutes their forefingers move imperceptibly, less than 1/8th of an inch. The hush is broken by the metallic “ping” of each of their rifles firing a tiny pellet, or a .22 caliber bullet, at a black paper dot the size of a Key lime, 50 yards away. Only the shooters can see that pinprick dot punched in the black paper through their riflescopes. Rifle shooting is not a visual or exciting sport for spectators. A chess match is more thrilling. Which is why nine or ten spectators at a rifle match constitute a packed house.
The shooters’ rifles look nothing like hunting or military rifles. They look like something out of “Total Recall,” metallic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, all gaps and holes that have been welded into scrap-metal art. Some shooters wear granny glasses with blinders, like those for skittish horses, only tinier, to tune out distractions. All the shooters wear acoustic earmuffs and the same uniforms: heavy, stiff canvas-and-leather pants and jackets, purple and gray, and shoes with flat hard soles as big as skateboards. They walk comically, arms out, left–right, like penguins wearing bomb disposal suits. Their uniforms are meant to restrict movement, not enhance it. They lock the shooters into one of three positions: standing, kneeling or prone, with a minimum of movement.
All sports are about movement – speed, power, dexterity, grace, finesse – except rifle shooting. The best shooters spend long moments relaxing their muscles, regulating their breathing and the flutter of their eyelids until that moment when they have willed their way to perfect motionless calm, a Zen-like trance. Their muscles are limp now, their bodies so light they could levitate, their breathing stopped, their eyes wide, unblinking. Their entire consciousness is focused only on that black dot 50 yards away as their forefinger moves in agonizing slowness through that 1/8th of an inch: “ping.”
Rifle shooting is the only sport in which all the competitors begin a match with a perfect score (600 points, 200 for each position), and spend the next two hours falling from grace. Shot after shot they lose points until the winner is declared. It’s a maddening sport of diminished expectations. Without thrills. Sport is about that great exhilaration of expending emotional, mental and physical energy in pursuit of success. It’s cathartic, a release. Shooters don’t release. They repress. Emotions, energy, movement, power, thought, even joy. There is something of the masochist in shooters. They are obsessed with perfection in a sport where perfection is numerically and tantalizingly possible, but is cruelly elusive. So they learn to appreciate those small private satisfactions in sport, and life, that most people disdain. Shooters are minimalists in the baroque world of sport. They are cerebral rather than physical. Ascetic rather than flamboyant. Abstemious. They live inside themselves, outside the world. They are comfortable with numbers, machines, rituals, order, silence, stillness, themselves. Shooters hold only themselves accountable.
Women, particularly, have the mental touch for triggers. Throughout modern history some of the best rifle shooters have been women. Annie Oakley in her long leather skirt and cowboy boots, her back to the target, her rifle on her shoulder aimed at the bull’s-eye; Annie staring into a mirror in front of her face before she shoots. In the 1960s and 70s, Margaret Murdock, a bespectacled Kansas farm girl with a toothy grin, was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She was assigned to the Army’s Marksmanship Training Unit and eventually assigned to the All Army MTV in Fort Benning, Georgia, the only woman in the unit. She toured Europe shooting in international competitions against men; and in 1976 she became the first female shooter ever to compete in the Olympics. In the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Margaret tied a man for the Olympic gold medal. The judges examined the targets over and over until finally they took the gold from Margaret and gave it to the man. The Olympic Committee then passed a new Olympic rule that women could henceforth only compete against women.
There was no such rule in NCAA collegiate rifle shooting, however; and in 1974, at age 19, Sherri Lynn Landes, a sophomore at Penn State, became one of the first women to compete on a men’s NCAA team. She was the best shooter on that Penn State team because, she said, “I’m not like them. They’re just on the rifle team. I’m a shooter.”
Karen Monez is always at ease wearing a cowboy hat amid the cattle country of Fort Worth, Texas, where she coaches the Texas Christian University rifle team. Monez is a fabled figure as a marksman, named one of the 50 greatest shooters in the 20th century by Shooting Sports magazine. For 22 years, Karen, now in her 50s, was on the U.S. Army Reserves Rifle team and in her later years was a U.S. Army Marksmanship Instructor at Fort Benning. After Karen left the Army she took up the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS), which is just what it sounds like, something out of a Roy Rogers western. She won three CAS championships under her CAS nom de plume, “Squaw Creek Rose,” and holds almost 100 shooting records with all types of firearms. Karen became the TCU coach in 2004, inheriting a team with a history of futility. In her second year, TCU was ranked 17th in the nation, and in 2005, fifth. Today the TCU rifle team is the most feared in the NCAA, having won the National Championship in 2010 and 2012, and finished third in 2011 and 2013. In 2010 they beat an all men’s team from Alaska-Fairbanks, and in 2012, they beat a predominantly male team from the University of Kentucky. The TCU team is made up solely of women, the first and only all women’s team to beat a men’s team for an NCAA championship.
Most likely in boots, Monez walks in an historic line of sharp-shooting women. Possibly the greatest in history was a 24-year-old, plump-faced factory worker from the Ukraine in the Soviet Union. Lyudmila Pavlichenko had been an amateur sharpshooter as a teenager before she enlisted in the Red Army in 1941, after the outbreak of World War II. She was assigned to the 25th Rifle Division where she became one of the Soviets’ 2000 female snipers. Only Lyudmila and 500 other female snipers survived the war. At war’s end, she was universally acclaimed one of the three greatest snipers in the history of modern warfare. The other two were men.
Lyudmila recorded 309 confirmed German kills in the battles of Odessa and Sevastopol. She so decimated the ranks of German soldiers and officers in those battles that the German High Command singled her out for extinction. They sent 36 snipers out with only a single goal: to kill her. She killed them all. After the war Lyudmila received the Soviet Union’s highest honors: The Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union.
Today there are maybe eight women who have successfully graduated from a US military sniper school. But none have yet to see combat because of the Army’s age-old rule of not allowing women in combat. That will be changing after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat in January. Most officers agree that women aren’t strong enough for many combat roles. However, ex-Marine Corps officer Greg Jacob told The New York Times that, “If the best shooter in the platoon was a woman, I can make her a sniper.”
Rifle team dynasty
The TCU rifle range is in a small low-ceiling, cinderblock building hidden from view behind a wall and overshadowed by dormitories and the massive recreation center. The Horned Frogs team shares their small space with the TCU ROTC unit.
Early one morning in March, Caitlin Morrissey showed me around the blindingly lit white range. She is 21, built strong with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She is pretty and perfectly made-up. “My ritual,” she said. “Shower, hair, make-up every morning. I’m very organized.” There is no artifice about her. She looked directly at me when she spoke. It was disconcerting. She stood at her locker, painstakingly putting on her uniform: shoes, a sling for her left arm, her gloves. “Everything’s so our muscles will not be used,” she said. She walked penguin-style to the firing line. She put on her granny glasses with blinders, and a third blinder over her left eye. “I don’t like to shut my left eye,” Caitlin said. “The exertion causes face fatigue. I took out my contacts too, so they won’t move around.” A lot of shooters wear glasses. Exceptional vision is overrated in shooting, they claim.
She stood at the firing line, her body sideways to the distant target. She assumed a model’s slouchy pose, legs spread, loose-hipped, her left hip cocked higher than her right. She turned her head and shoulders toward the target, aimed her rifle, her left hand under the barrel, cradling the rifle very gently, her left elbow propped against her left hip for support. “Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips,” Caitlin said. No smile, a fact. She pressed her cheek against her rifle, whispered something to it, and aimed. She exhaled, her body relaxed, got still. She held this pose for a few minutes, and then put her finger on the delicate trigger. It takes 1½ ounces of pressure to depress that trigger. Most firearms require 5 – 12 pounds of pressure. Caitlin stopped breathing, “ping”, took a breath and said, “9.8. Anything less than 10.0 is a failure. I haven’t settled into my position yet.” She aimed again. Two, three minutes went by, and then she fired. “A 10.6,” she said. “10.9 is perfect. See? My body’s settling in.” She aimed again, “ping” and a 9.8. “I could feel it was a 9 when I broke the shot. I wasn’t smooth pulling the trigger; I jerked it,” she said. She shot again (10.4), again, (10.6) again (10.8). I asked Caitlin if shooting a 10.9 was thrilling. She lowered her rifle and looked at me. “I wouldn’t call it thrilling,” she said. ”Rewarding maybe.”
“Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips.” – Caitlin Morrissey, 21, TCU’s 4-Time All-American shooter
As a young girl in Topeka she played all the sports against boys. When she was 7 years old, her father took her to a shooting club. By 9, she was beating all the boys. That was her main motivation, she said, but that didn’t last. Beating boys was no big deal. Beating girls, however, was something else. At first, boys were fascinated by the girl with the gun. By the eighth grade that was just her persona. That was when she learned that Margaret Murdock lived nearby. She went to visit her and wrote a story about the woman who’d won an Olympic gold medal in rifle shooting, and then had it taken away in favor of a man. Caitlin called her essay, a mini-book, really, “The Life of a Champion”, author: Caitlin Morrissey, Copyright: 2003, Publisher: Morrissey Publishing.
Maybe that’s still in the back of her mind, she said, because, “It’s still fun to beat boys. It’s an accepted fact that girls are better. Girls know how to calm themselves down, relax, focus on one thing. Boys get distracted. They don’t have our attention span. When we find something we like, we latch on to it. Ninety percent of shooting is mental toughness. We calm ourselves down after a bad shot, and not relax too much after a good shot.” She said that what gratifies her most about shooting is that it taught her how to calm herself in life. “It’s a monotonous sport,” she said. “You have to be self-motivating. You’re in the practice range for three hours every day. Your body is locked in a cramped position. Boys build muscle for movement. Girls build muscle for stability. We do neck and trapezius work” because that’s where all a shooter’s tension is. “What do I do to relax?” she said, smiling for the first time. “I go shopping. Or organize things, like our graduation party.”
Caitlin’s boyfriend is a hunter. “I could never be with a guy who didn’t like guns,” she said. “I’ve never hunted, but I might one day. I don’t have a Bambi Complex. But I don’t like to point my gun at anything I don’t intend to shoot. It’s a tool, like a baseball bat, never a weapon. I could never be a sniper. You should talk to Jaime. She’s a hunter. She’s in ROTC. She could be a sniper.”
Shooting for confidence
At noon I met Karen Monez, the coach, in her small, disheveled office. Mounds of papers spilling off her desk. Bullets on her desk. Rifle parts. Books, trophies, awards everywhere. Photos and posters on the walls. Photos of her alongside an old tintype of Annie Oakley, both of them dressed similarly: cowgirls with rifles. Photos of her team in Alaska, the young women dressed in huge snowsuits mushing dogs, the snowflakes frozen to the mascara on their eyelashes. “It’s a college-girl thing,” Karen said, giggling. “They put on lots of make-up to look pretty in our matches.” There’s a photo of a kitten staring into a mirror at her image, a lion, with the caption below, “What matters most is how you see yourself.” And another poster with two boys and a girl with rifles, the caption reading: “No shoe contracts, no designer steroids, no judging scandals. Just Champions. The USA Shooting Dream Begins Here.”
The most arresting photo, however, is a huge faux tintype of her rifle team, the team dressed like old timey cowgirls around a campfire. The women are all wearing high-peaked cowboy hats, vests, bandoliers of bullets, leather chaps, cowboy boots, repeating rifles in their arms. Some of them have whips. They stare out at the camera with a blank and threatening look. There’s a half-empty bottle of whiskey with a cork in it on the mess table.
“I used all my stuff for that shoot,” Karen told me. “It took a long time to set it up.” She smiled.
Karen is not much like her girls in many ways. Most of them are tall. Karen is small, 5-foot-4, she claims. That’s a stretch, even wearing her cowboy boots. She has long dark hair flecked with gray and she wears wire-rimmed eyeglasses that make her eyes look big, startled. She tends to giggle when nervous. She’s a shy, reserved woman unlike her more bold and direct shooters. But they are from a different generation than Karen. She was a shooter when it was a rarity for a girl to shoot against men. She started late, at 14, mostly for “the social aspect of it,” she said. She liked being “the girl to beat.” When pressured she falls back on the false modesty of her generation. “I won’t say I was better than the guys,” she said. Also, her team of shooters all have grand plans for themselves in their adult life. Film and television executive careers. Accounting careers for a major business. A health foundation for undernourished children in third-world countries. Karen has only one plan for her life. “I have a love for shooting,” she said. “Shooting is my driving force. The rifle range is where I prefer to be.” During her 22 years in the Army Reserve, she says her only job “was to be a competitive shooter on the team. I was the only girl.” Shooting gave her a persona she never shed. Which is understandable since shooting gave her the confidence a small, shy girl craved. The attempts at approaching perfection. The recognition. The independence. “Shooting was a sport in which no one determined what I did but me,” she said. “I liked to win.” I asked her if she ever thought of being a sniper in the Army. She said, “No, it wasn’t an option for women then. I never met a female who wanted to go into combat.” She smiled. “Except maybe Jaime. She could be a sniper.”
“Shooting was a sport in which no one determined what I did but me. I liked to win.” – TCU coach Karen Monez
Sherri Landes, the Penn State shooter close in age to Karen, told me that in 1974 it always frustrated her that “guys could do all the neat stuff and girls had to take dancing lessons. Ugh!” That’s why “beating guys really turns me on,” she added. But she said she could never ever kill a living thing with her gun, not animals or people. “My rifle isn’t a weapon, it’s like a golf club,” she explained. “When I pick it up, I think target, not kill. Why, if someone broke into my room it wouldn’t ever occur to me to pick up my rifle to scare them off.”
Today, many female shooters hunt, some even want to become snipers. Few ever talk about being turned on by “beating guys” in rifle matches. That’s old hat. Besides, today female shooters are not seen as inferior to male shooters, or as their equals. They are generally thought to be superior to men on the rifle range. In the recent NCAA Championships, in which TCU finished third, the all tournament team consisted of six women and two men. Three of those women, Scherer, Morrissey and Beard, were from TCU.
Karen said that her “girls are connected to most of the guys on other teams. It’s a small world. They’ve competed against those guys and beaten them for years. They’ve become friends. They go out to dinner before a match, and most girl shooters only have boy shooters for boyfriends.”
The TCU rifle team is one of a few all-female rifle teams in the country for a simple reason. TCU had a deficiency of females in NCAA sports and in order to satisfy the requirements of Title IX, the school had to field an all-female team. Which, Karen claimed, is a drawback because, “I can only recruit from half of the field.” The best half, actually. When Karen took over at TCU in 2004 her team consisted mostly of walk-ons. But soon she was recruiting the best shooters in the country such as Sarah Scherer and Caitlin Morrissey. Karen said that’s because most of her shooting team was attracted to TCU’s strong business school. TCU shooters tend to major in accounting, medicine, science, business and the military rather than in 17thcentury French poetry. The TCU shooters may be very attractive, but there is nothing
frou-frou about them. But again, Karen’s explanation for her great recruiting classes (i.e. the lure of TCU) might be false modesty. Not many of her other collegiate rifle coaches have her shooting credentials. Nor her coaching credentials – two National Championships in four years. Karen has a mother hen’s pride in her team. It’s as if she was a suffragist who sees in a future generation of women the self she was not allowed to be. After her girls beat the all-male Alaska-Fairbanks team for the 2010 NCAA Championship she said, “I think my girls settled the argument about women competing against men.”
The following afternoon Karen had organized an informal team match, I think for my benefit. When I entered the range the girls were at their lockers against the wall, putting on their uniforms, a painstaking ritual. Everything they do in the range seemed a ritual to be performed slowly, carefully, with great thought. Karen walked behind her girls like a theater stage manager before a show. “Fifteen minutes!” she called out. “Fifteen minutes!”
A broad-shouldered 21-year-old in ROTC cami-fatigues and combat boots strode into the range. She bellowed out, “That’s it! I’m officially a Texan today.” The girls laughed. Jaime Dowd is from Pueblo, Colorado, where, a day earlier, the governor had signed into law a restrictive gun law. Most of the TCU shooters are NRA members and very conservative when it comes to gun rights and other political issues. But they are socially liberal in a lot of ways, too.
Jaime began to change into her shooting uniform. She first shot a gun at the age of two. “I don’t ever remember thinking guns were not fun,” she said. “I didn’t realize girls didn’t play with guns until high school.” Her father was a park ranger and a hunter. When Jaime was 12, he took her into the mountains to hunt antelope. They spent most of the day tracking a big buck until finally Jaime got off a shot and killed her first buck. “It was a 200-yard shot,” she said, “a long shot for other families, but not mine. Dad taught me how to gut it and we ate it.” Her family encouraged her. By the time Jaime was in high school, she was “The Shooter Girl” and, as she notes, “No one questioned why I did it. They were just curious how.” She said that shooting gave her direction, an organized discipline, and the ability to manage time. “Range shooting is very mental,” she said. “Outdoors shooting is more physical and creative. There are a lot of variables, wind, noise, distractions.” I told her that kind of shooting must be a thrill. She stopped dressing and looked at me with that direct stare of her teammates that can be disconcerting. “I’m not sure you can call it a thrill,” she said. “Every time I get behind a gun I get calm, even if my heart’s racing. A sense of peace comes over me.”
“I’m not sure you can call it a thrill. Every time I get behind a gun I get calm, even if my heart’s racing. A sense of peace comes over me.”-Jaime Dowd, 21, nursing major in ROTC at TCU
Karen walked behind the girls and called out, “Ten minutes! Ten minutes!” Most of the girls were in their stiff uniforms now and at the firing line. They began adjusting their rifles, the scopes, the triggers, practiced aiming at the targets, then more adjusting. Karen called out, “Five minutes! Five minutes!”
Kelly Bogart, a freshman, was still at her locker getting dressed. Jaime bellowed at her, “Kelly, you’re never on time!” Kelly laughed and said to me, “Jaime’s awesome. But we’re the complete opposites. I have a Bambi Complex. I’m not into killing things. I’m just a precision paper puncher.” She’s a very small “precision paper puncher.” She claims 5-foot-2, and like Karen’s claim, it’s a tall tale. “No, really, I am,” she said, with big, expressive eyes. “Now, my mom is short, 4-foot-11.” She claimed, kidding–on–the–sly, that the only reason she came to TCU was because Karen Monez was the only coach she could look in the eye.
Kelly is short, curvy, and direct, but with the added infectious enthusiasm of an extrovert. She said, no, I was wrong. “I’m an introvert and a loner,” she said. “If I have too much personal interaction I need time alone.” Jaime is the boisterous one with a distinct flair. Her dorm room, for example, is decorated in a style only Jaime could conceive. Some of her non-shooting team friends won’t even enter her dorm room because the walls are covered with dead animal heads. Just recently, when her teammates went to the beach on spring break and came back with a tan, Jaime went hunting. She came back to school with another elk head.
The girls were practicing shooting now. Ping, ping, ping. Karen called out, “Two minutes!” One of the shooters assumed her standing position. She fidgeted, not satisfied, and took out a tape measure from her pocket. She bent over and measured 26 inches on the floor, marked it off, and then made sure her feet were on the two marks when she resumed her firing position.
Kelly had just gone to the firing line when Karen called out, “Ready, girls. Time.” The girls aimed at their targets for long moments, a line of them, before each at their own pace, finally fired. Kelly was still fussing with her rifle.
All the girls at this practice match were underclassmen. Kelly, Jaime, Lydia McGarva, Allie Taschuk, Hannah Black, Megan Lee, Catherine Green. The three senior All-American shooters, Scherer, Morrissey and Beard, are technically no longer on the team, although all still practice at the range in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. Scherer told me she would teach me how to shoot before I left the campus. I would talk to Beard tomorrow. Karen told me that Scherer is arguably the best shooter in the country. The only other shooter who comes close is a senior from Italy on the West Virginia University team: Petra Zublasing. And Sarah Beard. Beard was a late bloomer as a shooter. She came to TCU thinking there was no way she’d ever make the team. But now, after a lot of hard work, Karen said, “She would be the best shooter on any team that Sarah Scherer wasn’t on.” Scherer is the only shooter at TCU who ever fired a perfect score: a breathtaking 600 on November 1, 2011, against the University of Alaska. Only four athletes in the history of NCAA shooting have reached perfection.
The range was silent except for the ping of rifles. Karen paced behind her shooters like a football coach on the sidelines. But she did not say much. Shooters coach themselves. Karen said, “It’s 90% mental. I’m more a shrink than coach.”
Lydia, a slender blonde who was once an equestrian, walked off the line with her head down, hands to her face. She walked in small circles, distraught. Karen went over to talk to her. Lydia went back to the line. Karen said to me, “She’s going to the Junior Olympics and she’s worried she’ll be out of her comfort zone. I told her just to concentrate on shooting here now.” Lydia began shooting 10s, with, inexplicably, an occasional “flier” for a seven. Karen said, “That shouldn’t be. But she’s not as experienced as some of the others.”
Karen monitored each girl’s shooting on a computer screen, which showed precisely where each shot hit the bull’s-eye. “See?” she said, “Hannah has a lot of 10s, but they’re low 10s.” She called out, “Hannah, you’ve got to take that dot out!” Karen looked at Allie’s groupings and said, “All too high, I’ll have to talk to her.” Karen talks enthusiastically now, expansive in a way she’s not when off the range. “I love being on the range,” she said.
Kelly came late to shooting. “I was 14 the first time I held a gun,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of it, but I was afraid of the concept of a gun. In New York City a gun is a weapon.” Kelly grew up in Nassau County, Long Island. She played all the sports with the boys until the eighth grade when she realized she was too small to keep competing. During the summer before high school, she wondered if there was a sport for her out there. Then one day she was rummaging around in the attic of her home when she found a cache of all her father’s shooting equipment and trophies. She went downstairs and confronted him:
“What’s all this stuff?” she asked.
“Oh, just my shooting stuff,” he said.
“Oh, nice. A whole part of your life you never told me about?”
“You want to try it?” he asked.
“Ah, yeah, that sounds cool.”
Shooting immediately appealed to her she said, “because I like that it’s about numbers. Numbers define who won. I like definitive things. But I also like philosophical questions, too.” Why? “Because I’m smart.” I asked her, once, a philosophical question about men having psychological dominance over women. She said, “I don’t have the experience to answer that yet. I don’t make up stuff if I don’t know.”
In high school she quickly became an all-county, then an all-state champion. The boys she’d once played basketball with now called her “Shooter.” Her father was her coach. He never gave her a break. When she shot 297 out of a perfect 300 he told her to come back to him when she shot 300. He knew his daughter was one of what Truman Capote called “the little people,” and as such she had to be tougher, more self-reliant, smarter, and without excuses in a world of big people, like Jaime Dowd. In her free time, Jaime kills big animals. In her free time, Kelly sings in a women’s choir.
“I could never go into the military like Jaime,” Kelly said. “I had a chance to go to West Point as a shooter. I mean, I could have been the Army’s secret weapon in battle. The enemy wouldn’t see me.” More seriously, she said that shooting had changed her life in a profound way. “It taught me to control my emotions,” she said. “I equate everything I do in life with shooting. To be a shooter you have to have a high level of maturity.”
“I had a chance to go to West Point as a shooter. I mean, I could have been the Army’s secret weapon in battle. The enemy wouldn’t see me.”-Kelly Bogart, 19.
While the women were still shooting, I mentioned Kelly’s West Point story to Karen. She said, “We beat the Army all the time. At the awards dinner last night the school chancellor introduced Sarah Scherer by saying she was on the rifle team that always beat Army’s rifle team.”
The ladies finished the first round of shooting and took a break. Kelly got into a conversation with Lydia about odd names. Lydia said she had a friend once named Dugwan Armani. Another shooter said she used to be a cheerleader in high school. Jaime spoke up, “I was a cheerleader, too.” The girls stared at her. Jaime waited a beat then said, “When I was two.” They all laughed.
The girls went back to their shooting. Karen announced, “Ten shots left.” Now, as the competition wound down, Karen assumed the persona of a sports announcer, giving each team member cute nicknames, and shouting out and clapping at 10.7 scores. When Jaime shot a perfect 10.9, Karen shouted, “Yay, for Jaime,” and clapped. After the fifth shot, Karen said, “The leader is Hannah Black,” and after the sixth, “Taking the lead, Jaime Dowd.” The shooters didn’t seem to have much interest in Karen’s cheerleading. It was almost as if she was the one with the childlike enthusiasm, and they were the adult professionals, competing without emotion.
After the ninth shot Karen called out, “Hannah Black’s regained the lead, followed by Jaime Dowd, and watch out for Catherine Green coming up.” Hannah won the competition on her last shot. Karen giggled and called, “Woooo!” and clapped her hands. Then she said, “Next up is the last frog standing.” It was a shooters’ game of musical chairs. The worst shot in each round would sit down, until there was only one shooter left. After six shots Catherine Green, from Rhode Island, was still standing, alone. Karen said, “We have a winner! Wooo! The last frog standing, Catherine Green! She will get a prize at the end of the year.”
The following morning I was talking to Karen in her office. She was telling me where to go in Fort Worth to find cowboy boots for my wife, when another tall, strongly built girl appeared in her doorway. She had long dark hair, high cheekbones, a striking figure. Sarah Beard, like all the TCU shooters I talked to over five days, showed up for our interview fifteen minutes early. We talked about dating. “Shooters date shooters,” she said. And what do they talk about? Shooting.
Sarah grew up a tomboy with two older brothers in Indiana and a father who was a hunter and a shooter in the 1984 Olympics. “I thought it was cool to hunt with dad,” she said. “I shot my first squirrel at seven, then rabbits, doves, I loved it.” As a young girl she played sports with the guys. Her mother, who had wanted a girl after two sons, was determined to turn her daughter into a girlie-girl, so she put up pink wallpaper in her room. “Oh, I hated it,” said Sarah. “From age 5 to 12, I hated it.” When Sarah shot her first deer at 13, she mounted its head onto her pink walls, then painted them lime green. Her mother said, “If you want lime walls and a deer head I’m keeping your door locked when people come.”
Sarah equated shooting with hunting throughout high school. “I didn’t know anything about range shooting until I got to TCU,” she said. “I loved the whole aspect of outdoor shooting, the challenge, the snap decisions, the sights, sounds, wind, sun, dealing with all those distractions.”
“I didn’t know anything about range shooting until I got to TCU,” she said. “I loved the whole aspect of outdoor shooting, the challenge, the snap decisions, the sights, sounds, wind, sun, dealing with all those distractions.”-Sarah Beard, 21, math major and 4-time All-American
She never thought she’d make the TCU team in her freshman year, but she worked hard, made the team, and became one of its three best shooters. “When we won the 2010 NCAA Championship against the Alaska men’s team,” she said, “our fellow TCU students came up to us, ‘Gee, we didn’t even know we had a rifle team.’” She said it was no big deal for her to beat men, “I don’t think about the competition, I just think how I shoot.” Now, about to graduate, she’s preparing for the Olympics, “which is kinda annoying, only shooting against women. But I’ll shoot how I shoot no matter who it’s against.” She gave me a disgusted look, “You know in the Olympics women only get 20 shots, men get 40. Like we’re not able to shoot more shots?” The TCU women have no concept of themselves as frail, Victorian women prone to vapors. They don’t even see themselves as equal to men, but rather as superior as shooters, like the mythical Valkyrie. Sarah said women are better shooters than men because of their hips, and because, “You suggest a girl try something and she’ll do it until she gets it right. Guys will try it once, then go back to their way.”
I asked her if her goal was to win an Olympic medal. She said, “I don’t set goals. Goals limit you. I’m a perfectionist. If I’m not perfect I’ll tear my gun apart and rebuild it. It’s my one weakness. I’m too critical. It’s hard for me to put a bad shot out of my mind.” Like all the TCU shooters, Sarah’s comfortable with machines, which is why, she said, “I get along better with engineering guys. Guys who make their own things fascinate me. I like minds that are controlled, disciplined, objective. I could never have a roommate who’s ditzy.”
Sarah described herself as “an introvert” who spent all her time on the range, lost in her self, shooting in a cramped position. “All shooting positions are asymmetrical,” she said. “I have curvature of the spine, one side of my back more muscular because of the way shooting pulls my muscles.” When she’s not shooting, she retreats to her room and reads. When she graduates from TCU in a few months, she’d like to go off by herself to foreign countries. “I want to see Africa,” she said. I said Africa is dangerous. She looked at me in that matter-of-fact way most of her teammates did when I said something they considered obtuse. Then she said, “Yes, Africa is dangerous. But so is the world.”
Before I left I asked her about women in combat in the U.S. military, especially as snipers. Sarah grinned and said, “Awesome! That would be awesome! I absolutely did think about becoming a sniper. The problem is, I don’t like to do what people tell me to do. And I don’t know whether I could kill someone without knowing what they did to deserve being killed. The philosophical concept bothers me.” Then she laughed out loud and said, “Now Jaime! Have you talked to Jaime? Jaime could absolutely be a sniper in a heartbeat.”
One morning, in the deserted the range, I sat with Jaime on folding chairs, facing each other. She was in her ROTC cami-fatigues and combat boots. She likes to wear her uniform but sometimes it embarrassed her. “People come up to me in airports and thank me for my service,” said Jaime, a 21-year-old nursing major. “But I haven’t done anything, yet.” I asked her if, as a nurse, she could perform in battlefield trauma situations, faced with mangled and dismembered bodies. She said, “Anytime I’ve been in a crisis situation I did my job. It’s what I learned from shooting.”
I told her about my conversations with her teammates about women in combat in the military, especially as snipers. “They all said the same thing,” I said, “Talk to Jaime.” She smiled and said, “Yes, they think I’m blood thirsty. My favorite book is The Dangerous Game. I’ve wanted to be an Army sniper since I was in middle school. I’m a very loyal, protective person with my family and my country. I have some sense of self-preservation, but if it’s for the greater good, I could shoot a person for my country.” I told her about the Russian woman sniper, Pavlichenko. She gave me a thin smile as if I were telling her that the sun rises in the East. “I did a research paper on her in high school,” she said. “When I told my parents I wanted to be a sniper, my dad said, ‘O.K.’ and my mom said, ‘You can’t do that. It’s really hard in the woods.’”
“My favorite book is The Dangerous Game. I’ve wanted to be an Army sniper since I was in middle school. I’m a very loyal, protective person with my family and my country. I have some sense of self-preservation, but if it’s for the greater good, I could shoot a person for my country.”-Jaime Dowd
Her mother, to discourage her, gave her a book, “One Shot, One Kill”, the story of America’s greatest sniper, Carlos Hathcock. After Jaime read it, “I wanted to be a sniper even more. Do you know where they got that term, ‘sniper’? It’s from hunting snipe, the most difficult game bird to shoot.” The problem is, she went on, the U.S. military won’t let its women snipers stalk their adversaries. They use them to guard complexes, but not in the field. “I’ve been out in the woods for a week stalking elk,” Jaime said. “Elk are harder to stalk than man. They can smell and hear you a mile away. Besides, women are better snipers than men.” Why? She looked at me and explained, “We know how to give things up. I’d be a sniper in a heartbeat if I could.”
“A nurse-sniper,” I said to her. “You could shoot ‘em then put them back together.” She laughed. “My teammates always say that. ‘Just try not to shoot your own people, Jaime,’ they say.”
She stood up to leave. I reached out my hand, she stiffened, almost as if at attention. She shook my hand firmly, once, like a soldier, and said, “Thank you, Sir.”
I spent my last day at TCU as I had the previous four, in that blindingly-lit white rifle range with the only sound those maddening “pings.” But what had been disorienting at first was now comforting. That room of such simple focus, without the distractions of real life. The rifle. The black dot. The repeated “pings.’ On this day, Karen had organized another intra-team match, but with .22 rifles instead of pellet air rifles. In most competitions shooters have to show their proficiency with both rifles. The girls were already in their prone positions when I came in. They lay on their stomachs, their backs painfully arched for long moments. I could see why Sarah Beard’s back had curvature of the spine.
Sarah Scherer and I were on the line, but at the far end of the shooters. She was teaching me how to shoot with an air rifle from a standing position while her teammates shot their .22s. That “ping” sound was no longer annoying to me. I no longer twitched at each shot, which had become the strangely comforting Muzak of the rifle range.
Sarah is another tall, sturdily built beauty, but with wild, curly chestnut-colored hair. But in some ways she was unlike her two All-American teammates. She is from Boston, not the Midwest. She had no loving father who hunted and taught her how to shoot before her seventh birthday. Her father left the family when Sarah was a child. “I have no relationship with my father,” she told me. “I don’t want one.”
Sarah stood close behind me, put her arms over each of my shoulders and showed me how to hold the empty rifle. I put my left hand under the barrel and gripped the rifle firmly. I could feel my left biceps muscle tensing. Sarah said, “No, no. Just let the rifle rest in your cupped hand. No pressure.” Then she told me to put my right hand forefinger inside the trigger guard. “Now feel the trigger,” she said. “Very gently.” I put my finger on the trigger and it clicked. “Too much pressure,” she said. “Just touch it until you feel it against your skin.” I did, without clicking the trigger. “Good,” she said. “Now there’s just a little take-up before it fires. Try to get used to that take-up before it does fire.” I practiced it over and over until I felt that slight take-up and knew just when the trigger would fire. “Very good, very good,” she said. “You’re a good student.” I said, “You’re a good teacher.” She smiled and said, “Now, let’s get your position right. Spread your legs, your body sideways to the target.” I did. “Now turn your upper body slightly toward the target so you’re facing it.” I did. It felt odd, like I was twisting my upper body and lower in opposite directions. “Very good,” she said. She reached over my shoulder and inserted a pellet into the rifle. “Now, you’re ready.” I aimed at the target, that black dot I saw through the scope. It jumped and twitched and seemed to be alive. She said, “You’re squeezing the rifle with your left hand. Feel it?” I nodded. “Cock your left hip like a woman.” I did. “Now let your left elbow rest against that hip so that all the weight of the rifle is going down the bones of your arm and none of that weight is being controlled by your muscles.” I did as I was told and now the black dot seemed to be less alive, less twitchy…
In Boston, when she was a girl, Sarah was “the best soccer player on my team,” until she discovered shooting. “My brother, two years older, was interested in joining the military so he taught me how to shoot at nine,” she said. “It brought us even closer together. We were known as ‘The Shooters.’ People in New England didn’t know about firearms and sports. They used to ask us, ‘Do you shoot people?’” As for guys in Boston, she said, dating was a problem. “They had these big egos,” she said. “They’d say, ‘I don’t wanna mess with you, you have a gun.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just a shooter to you, not a smart, attractive, interesting woman?’” Which is why she’s now dating a shooter: “Because we respect each other. We know the sacrifices we’ve had to make.”
I asked Sarah if she’d ever hunted. She said no, “But I understand the concept of hunting. It’s part of our American heritage.” I asked her if she might ever hunt. She said, “Maybe?” With whom, I asked? She burst out laughing and said, “You’re kidding, of course. With Jaime. Who else?” Could she become a sniper like Jaime? She thought a moment, and then said, “I appreciate our military’s sacrifice for us. But I don’t take orders well. Still, I’m a conservative person, like most TCU shooters. My friends in Boston are liberal. But at 22, I might have to make a choice someday on how to protect my country.”
Sarah said she had never feared firearms, despite the fact that her brother committed suicide at 22 with a firearm. She only sees her shooting as something that “fits my calm, detached, controlled personality. It appealed to me, the unique way we have to control our bodies without using our muscles. I like controlling my body. Shooting is the greatest therapy for me. It’s yoga with a gun.” Still, she added, if shooting was all she had, “I’d spiral down, so I balance it with my other passions.” She wants to start a non-profit, health-based problem-solving program for particular ethnic groups. And then of course, there is her real passion.
“Ballroom dancing,” she said. I laughed. But it made sense, all that spinning, leaping, expenditure of energy after her cramped hours in stillness on the range. She looked at me. “Seriously,” she said. “I watch ‘Dancing With the Stars’. But it’s hard to convince guys to dance with me.” How does she do it? “I tell them, ‘This will be the only time in your life you’ll be able to tell a woman what to do and she’ll do it,’” she said. I laughed again, and added, “All women should do what men tell them to do.” She threw back her head of wild hair and roared, “Oh, Pat. You are hilarious!”
I had been shooting for fifteen minutes. I could feel the rifle getting heavy in my arms. My biceps tensed to control it and the target began twitching again. I felt like I was shooting at something alive that was trying to dodge my pellets. I tried to hit the target on the move. Most of my shots were at the extreme end of the black dot, barely a score of seven, the lowest score. I felt myself getting frustrated, angry, until I heard Sarah’s soothing voice behind me, “Relax your arms. Your elbow is coming off your hip and your muscles are taking over.” I forced my left elbow back on my hip, the target stopped twitching and I pulled the trigger. Sarah said, “Oh, terrific! You hit the bulls-eye, a 10.”
“That’s it,” I said. “Quit when you’re ahead.”
The other shooters had stopped now, and were taking off their uniforms, packing them in their lockers and leaving the range. When they were all gone and we were alone, I asked Sarah about her brother’s suicide. “He had a lot of pressure on him,” she said. “He had to be the man of the family. We were very close. His death is always the elephant in the room. I miss him every day. But I don’t ever want to get over it. I believe I will see him again one day. Until then, shooting helps me maintain a connection with him. Most shooters have qualities inherently in them that makes them be shooters. And those qualities apply to everything in our life.”