Stepping Onto An Aircraft – And Out Of My Comfort Zone

I’m sure – from my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – you are aware that this week I spent four days at my very first international competition, the Cyprus Grand Prix. With some support from the UCL Elite Athlete programme, I managed to attend what I realise now was actually my first proper Olympic Skeet competition EVER!

Aside from the appalling cost incurred by British Airways (seriously, don’t travel with them if you intend to take a gun, it’s an extortionate cost!) and the ridiculous amount of time it took for me to book my gun onto my flight over the phone, the flight, the walk through customs and picking up my hire car were relatively straightforward. I’d never hired a car before, nor driven abroad, so needless to say I was terrified! And considering that for some reason the hire car guy gave me a free upgrade and therefore handed me a car twice as wide and long as my one back home, I was very careful leaving the car park for fear of misjudging the length of the bonnet!

In spite of my fear of getting lost, my confidence grew as I followed my satnav from Larnaca to Nicosia. I made it to my hotel, checked in quickly, and practically fell into bed, knowing that my squad was due on at 8:35 the following morning.

I left plenty of time to get to the ground, over an hour to go 10 miles through the city which should, at that time of day, only have taken around 30 minutes, but my worst nightmare occurred that morning; I got completely and hopelessly lost. By the time I reprogrammed the satnav, arrived, booked in and got all my equipment out of the car, I had missed my squad start time by three minutes. In my distress, tiredness and anger, tears started welling up in my eyes as I poured my heart and apologies out to the referee. Luckily, one other shooter on another squad had not turned up, so the referees graciously agreed for me to take her spot for a round to catch up.

We shot 75 the first day – the ISSF have recently changed it so that women now shoot the same amount of targets as men. This was reflected in the increased price of entry, but it hadn’t been advertised, so I was asked for €25 more which reduced my week’s meal fund significantly! This, coupled with the fluster of being late and getting lost, not sleeping enough, the late arrival, two hour time difference, and subconscious pressure formed by so many exceptional shooters, meant I didn’t shoot well at all. The first round was the worst; by the third, I had finally found my feet a little, so I hoped that the next day would be better.

I realised quickly that perhaps the first challenge off of the range is being able to stay focused and energised during the breaks between rounds; whilst at a registered we only generally wait twenty minutes or so in between rounds, at this event we had gaps of two and a half hours. In the heat and with so many other shooters to watch, it is easy to get distracted, dehydrated and hungry, which all affect performance.

That night, I received a message from a friend who was also shooting, asking if I had booked in to shoot on the Friday in the mixed team skeet event, where a male and female shooter each shoot 75 targets and their scores are combined. I hadn’t – I didn’t know any of the British Shooting men in Olympic Skeet except for my coach and Ben Llewellin, both of whom already had partners – but Mike Gilligan, three times British Champion and World Cup Silver Medallist, was looking for someone to pair up with so he could shoot the event as a practice before competing as an individual that weekend. As my flight wasn’t leaving until late on the Friday and I had no other plans, I said I’d have a chat with him the following day about it, and fell asleep excited for the next morning.

The second day was markedly colder, with grey clouds laying across the sky from the shooting ground all the way across the city. Definitely hoody weather! Another early start, this time 8am; I shot the final two rounds a little better, and ended on an ok score overall, all things considered. I won’t lie, I was disappointed, as I had been shooting very well in training before leaving the UK, and I joked with Mike that he needed to shoot 75 straight to make my poor shooting less impactful on our final total! He said it didn’t matter, as long as I enjoyed it.

Our squad wasn’t due out until 9:30am, so I thankfully managed a bit of a lay in for the first time since Monday morning. I packed all of my things, ready to drive to the airport straight from the ground as I knew we wouldn’t make the shoot offs or final, and had a nice leisurely final drive through Nicosia. The beautiful hot weather had returned, although a comfortable breeze blew across the top of the hill to keep us cool as we shot.

Though I thought I was relaxed and had transcended the pressure barrier, I shot terribly on the first and second rounds. Mike noticed that I was nervous, and I think it was more to do with the fact that I didn’t want to let him down, especially as he shot a straight 25 and then a 24! He was incredibly supportive, telling me that there was no pressure on me to do well and all I had to do was enjoy my shooting; that I wasn’t letting him down and I was just needed to have a great experience.

As we got to range A for the third and final round, the breeze subsided and we felt the heat of the sun pounding down on us. I decided that I would try something new this time, as my current approach clearly wasn’t working. Again, Mike shot well, although he was unlucky to miss a shot as the wind arose again and caught the clays a little. I dropped too many on the first half of the layout, which I don’t normally struggle with, but shocked myself on stands 5 and 6.

I changed my foot position on these two; I have always found the low bird on them especially tough, even when I was shooting English Skeet, because of my left eye dominance. However, I stood on the concrete slabs differently, more square to the targets – AND I HIT EVERY SINGLE BIRD, SINGLES AND PAIRS! It’s incredible how just a simple, relatively minor change makes such a massive difference.

We moved on to 7, which I finally seem to be able to break in two separate shots instead of a combined one hitting both clays (which counts as a ‘no target’ and you have to take the pair again), but my altered foot position on four for the simultaneous pairs didn’t work at all. Shan’t be trying that again!

I approached stand eight rethinking my foot position for the low bird; it’s almost like a grouse bird, but again I have struggled with it because of my eye dominance. I stood almost exactly opposite to how I have been normally approaching this clay – and HIT THIS ONE TOO!

I was in shock; I know I had the biggest, most gormless grin you’ve ever seen on my face as I walked back towards Mike. I was so pleased I had decided to try something new, and while the round wasn’t my best, I felt I shot so much better on stands I normally don’t shoot very well and had some things to try when I got back home.

I am incredibly glad I went to the competition, as it was a truly fantastic experience. For my first major event, coupled with the stress of the airport issues, getting lost on the first day, being surrounded by 90% of the other shooters wearing national team skeet vests, not having had a lot of sleep and the nerves I tried to get rid of but apparently didn’t, I was pretty pleased with what I achieved – I mean, not all shooters would have gone to an international competition after less than a year of starting their new discipline!

So all in all, whilst I certainly didn’t put in the final score I had planned to, I had such a positive experience, and took away a lot of constructive points in preparation for this season.

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