Olympics: Historic debut for champion Thrasher

Virginia Thrasher is congratulated by her coach after the 19-year-old US shooter held her nerve to win the women's 10m air rifle gold medal at the Olympic Shooting Centre yesterday.
Virginia Thrasher is congratulated by her coach after the 19-year-old US shooter held her nerve to win the women's 10m air rifle gold medal at the Olympic Shooting Centre yesterday.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Unfancied US teenager takes Rio's first gold medal, outgunning two former champions

Virginia Thrasher arrived in Rio de Janeiro this month, ready to take part in just her second international competition and glad that an event as momentous as the Olympics would be where she celebrated her fifth anniversary in shooting.

The 19-year-old American will leave Brazil an Olympic champion in the women's 10m air rifle, after her nerves of steel and steady hands made her the first athlete in Rio to stand atop a podium.

Her win, the first gold of the Rio Games, helped the United States fire - literally - the first salvo in the race to top the medal table at these Games.

China's Du Li took silver while 2012 champion Yi Siling of China was third.

As Thrasher stood in the finals hall of the Olympic Shooting Centre yesterday, a raucous crowd behind her and bossa nova playing in the speakers, few would have bet on the American - ranked No. 23 in the world and the only Olympic debutante among the eight finalists - to prevail.

Perhaps the West Virginia University sophomore, who started shooting when her grandfather took her hunting and continued because she loved the "adrenaline", just enjoys a pressure-cooker environment.

BREATHING THROUGH DISTRACTIONS

There's a bit of disbelief and I'm very overwhelmed. It's the best feeling on earth. I've been working very hard and I'm very proud to start off Rio with a gold for my country.

VIRGINIA THRASHER, the youngest shooter to figure in yesterday's final of the women's 10m air rifle.

But Thrasher, whose first shot of the day was a perfect 10.9, never appeared to let the pressure - or the stellar field - get to her.

The youngest shooter in the final, she was also the only one who never shot below a 10.0.

Taking the lead after the third series of the final, she never looked back. Not even when it was just down to her and two former Olympic gold medallists beside her - Yi and Du, the 2004 winner who shot an Olympic record in the qualification round earlier.

Said Thrasher: "I had some distracting thoughts about the medals (midway through), but I just breathed through it and concentrated on shooting the best that I could."

Going into the last two shots of the final with a slender 0.7 lead, Thrasher knew Du was fully capable of leapfrogging her for gold.

The Chinese, in her third Olympics with golds from 2004 and 2008 (50m rifle three-positions), had come back from the brink of elimination several times in the final, with a solid 10.8 three times.

But by Thrasher's last shot of 10.4, it was clear that not even perfection by Du would rob the American of the gold.

Said the engineering major, who also goes by "Ginny": "I knew it was realistic for me to make the final, but I wasn't focused on that. There's a bit of disbelief and I'm very overwhelmed. It's the best feeling on earth.

"I've been working very hard and I'm very proud to start off Rio with a gold for my country. I'm very proud," added Thrasher, who will also compete in the 50m rifle three-positions on Thursday.

"It's been a whirlwind of a summer. I've been travelling internationally the whole summer - this is just icing on the cake."

In a little over a week, Thrasher will leave Rio for home in West Virginia, happy to go back to a "normal routine" - an 8.30am physics class, just 20 hours after she touches down.

She says she might bring a little something extra on that first day of the new school year - textbook in one hand, and quite possibly, a shiny gold medal in the other.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Historic debut for champion thrasher'. Print Edition | Subscribe