Golden girl Skinner steals the show during Australian Olympic campaign

The high point came early on in proceedings as far as the Australian shooting team was concerned at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The squad ended up with a solitary medal but it was certainly something special as Catherine Skinner, a 26-year-old SSAA member from Mansfield in Victoria, took gold in the women’s Trap event on day two.

Skinner overcame the challenge of New Zealand’s Natalie Rooney in a thrilling 12-11 shoot-out to claim Australia’s third gold medal overall of the Games at that point as things started brightly for the whole Australian campaign. Television and print media rushed to hail country girl Skinner’s achievement, which helped Australia set the initial pace near the top of the total medals table.

The chemical engineering student notched shooting’s first Olympic medal since the 2008 Beijing Games but did things the hard way. She survived two sudden-death aims against Canada’s Cynthia Meyer in a shoot-off to reach the six-person semi-final. Then after making the gold medal play-off by missing just one of 15 shots, she endured a horror start against Rooney. Skinner fluffed her first and fourth shots to fall two targets in arrears, but when Rooney lapsed, she coolly sank the concluding three clay targets to prevail by one shot. The result meant that the daughter of a cattle farmer from rural Victoria became Australia’s first Olympic shooting gold medallist since Suzy Balogh won the same event in 2004.

So grateful for support

Skinner was very humble after her achievement, at first unable to take in the enormity of what she had managed to pull off. “Even now I am still amazed I have got this gold medal in my hand,” Skinner said in the immediate aftermath of the event.

She was also able to reflect on the help and understanding bestowed on her by her family and university tutors as the demands of her passion for shooting had made heavy inroads into her educational schedule. “I doubt I would have got through (my degree) without the support of my lecturers at RMIT,” Skinner said. “There were certainly times when they were getting sick of me because I would have to reschedule exams (because I was going away in shooting competitions)...Their flexibility was incredible.”

Skinner’s dad Ken and older brother Andrew were instrumental in encouraging her to get into the sport but had to stay back in Australia. However, mum Anne, other brother Craig and Craig’s girlfriend Meredith were in the stands (alongside AOC chef de mission Kitty Chiller) as events unfolded.

Double Commonwealth Games gold medallist Laetisha Scanlan roared into the finals of the Trap event as the top qualifier but bowed out after missing five of her targets in the six-person shoot-out.

Despite Skinner’s golden moment and Scanlon’s flying start, it was a case of what might have been for the rest of the Aussie squad. Lalita Yauhleuskaya, appearing in her fourth Games for Australia and sixth overall, and Elena Galiabovitch competed in the women’s 10m Air Pistol event. Yauhleuskaya finished 24th while Galiabovitch, who was making her Olympic debut, landed 43rd.

Newcastle’s Blake Blackburn came 36th on his debut appearance in the men’s 10m Air Pistol on the opening day. He was followed by four-time Olympian Daniel Repacholi, who managed 44th berth. Jennifer Hens lodged 39th position in the women’s 10m Air Rifle in an event won by 19-year-old American Virginia Thrasher. Li Du and Siling Yi, both from China, won silver and bronze respectively.

Huge pressure on Iles

Disappointment abounded on day three of the Games as a hopeful foursome all suffered early exits. Adam Vella and teenage debutant Mitchell Iles both slumped out in the qualification round of the men’s Trap with Vella finishing 12th and Iles settling for a 26th placing. The news was little better in the men’s 10m Air Rifle with Dane Sampson and Jack Rossiter experiencing similar fates. Sampson ended up 37th, while Rossiter had to be satisfied with 46th.

Perhaps the pressure was all too much for 17-year-old Iles, who endured a tortuous route to earn his inclusion in the Australian shooting squad. Iles replaced two-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Diamond, who had been deemed ineligible by selectors following some personal challenges prior to the Games. Iles also had to lodge an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport after having been overlooked in the first phase of the squad being announced. “The lead-up wasn’t exactly what you’d want before coming to an event like this,” he told AAP. “But look, I got here in the end so that was the main plan.”

For 45-year-old Vella, there will be no more Olympics and he took time to ponder what had gone on leading up to the Rio campaign. “Everyone likes a nice, clean run to an event - especially like this - and whenever there’s controversy around a selection or something like that, it’s got to play some part,” Vella told AAP. “Of the three Olympics I have done, it was probably the worst run-up to a Games.”

There was again no joy for Yauhleuskaya and Galiabovitch, who both finished well off the pace in the women’s 25m Pistol event on day four. Yauhleuskaya claimed 14th spot after the Precision and Rapid rounds, while Galiabovitch also failed to qualify for the medal action after ending in 31st position.

Willett’s whirlwind journey

It was a case of so near, yet so far for Australia’s James Willett, who had to be content with fifth place in the men’s Double Trap on day five. Willett contested a three-man shoot-off with British pair Steven Scott and Tim Kneale for the right to progress to the bronze medal stage, but a sole miss meant he was demoted to fifth. Scott duly grabbed the bronze from his countryman, while Kuwaiti Fehaid Aldeehani, who was involved as an independent Olympic athlete, won gold when he saw off Italy’s Marco Innocenti.

Twenty-year-old Willett, another SSAA member, reached the final with an equal Olympic record 140 from 150 shots. En route he shot two straight clean sweeps of 30s. It seemed that he could not miss. And that went on into the final. His initial 13 shots were perfection, before he missed two from four. “I was pretty happy with my first Olympics,” Willett said.“It was a great experience. I missed out on the medals but I’ll take it home and work on it for Tokyo.”

Willett, from Mulwala in New South Wales’ Riverina region, came to Rio for his Olympic debut ranked number one in the world, an amazing feat remembering he had only started the Double Trap event two years ago.

Earlier in the day, Repacholi finished 28th in the men’s 50m Pistol, which was his second event of the Games.

There were no Australian entrants in the women’s 50m Rifle 3 Position competition on day six where Germany’s Barbara Engleder won gold. The world number five-ranked shooter walked away with her first medal in her fourth appearance at the Games.

Teenager Jones shows pluck

A busy schedule for Australia’s shooters saw them finish day seven with fluctuating fortunes. It was a big moment for 16-year-old Aislin Jones, who stepped up in the women’s Skeet. She put in a spirited effort to tally 63 but that was not enough to earn her qualification from a finishing berth of 17th. However, the youngster clearly has a promising future in front of her.

Italy’s Diana Bacosi grabbed gold in the Skeet with success over compatriot Chiara Cainero. Thirty-eight-year-old Cainero, who won gold in 2008, missed two of her first four shots and Bacosi, 33, never relinquished her grip after that. American Kim Rhode, 37, beat China’s Wei Meng in the bronze medal match to become the first person to win Olympic medals on five continents.

Australian pair Warren Potent and Sampson failed to advance to the final of the men’s 50m Rifle Prone. Potent was back in 35th while Sampson had to settle for 31st spot. Germany’s Henri Junghaenal romped away with gold in the event. The 28-year-old set an Olympic record in the final with a finishing score of 209.5. Kim Jong-Hyun, of South Korea, took silver ahead of Russia’s Kirill Grigoryan.

Chapman rues his ill fortune

There was more frustration for Aussie hopes on day eight. David Chapman finished 25th in the men’s Rapid Fire Pistol event, while Keith Ferguson commandeered 10th in the men’s Skeet with Paul Adams following him in 19th.

Chapman suffered the misfortune of having his pistol jam during the closing series, which meant that he finished with a score of 76, whereas he had averaged in the low 90s during the earlier rounds. “It’s just one of those things that can happen in Rapid Fire but it’s just a shame it happened during the Olympic Games,” the three-time Olympian said.

Germany’s Christian Reitz led from go to whoa to receive gold in the Rapid Fire Pistol. His score of 35 equalled an Olympic record. Reitz, 29, had previously collected a bronze in Beijing in 2008. Jean Qunquampoix, of France, took silver, while China’s Yuehong Li was happy with bronze.

As Adams and Ferguson bowed out in the Skeet, Italy’s Gabriel Rossetti garnered gold. He pipped Swede Marcus Svensson. Kuwaiti shooter Abdullah Al-Rashidi, lining up as an independent, strolled off with bronze after overcoming Ukraine’s Mikola Milchev.

Italy finishes as top nation

The big story of the final day was Italy’s Niccolo Campriani wrapping up his second gold medal of the Games in the 50m Rifle 3 Position event with Aussie duo Sampson and SSAA member Will Godward both failing to make the final. Sampson clocked a score of 1169-58x to finish 20th with team-mate Godward lagging behind in 40th place after 1156-41x.

Even so, Sampson was comfortable with what he had achieved and the Queenslander felt that the result has given him a confidence boost for his future endeavours. “I’m happy with that, it’s actually my second best score of the year so it’s good to get a good score down,” he said. “I really enjoyed it out there. I was a bit disappointed with how I shot the other day so to come back and finish where I did is good.”

The competition was won by reigning champion Campriani. The 28-year-old led after both the kneeling and prone phases. During the standing portion of the event, Campriani and silver medallist Sergey Kamenskiy exchanged the lead. Campriani and Kamenskiy were well clear of the rest of the pack so the gold medal was always going to be decided between the two.

The tension boiled over on the final shot for the last standing shooters. Kamenskiy held a 0.6 advantage over Campriani, who fired a lacklustre 9.2 to seemingly gift the outcome to the Russian. However, Kamenskiy could only manage a limp 8.3, which stunned onlookers and handed the gold medal back to the defending champion. The bronze medal was snared by 21-year-old Alexis Raynaud, of France.

Campriani viewed the victory as a matter of sheer relief. “My heart just gave up,” he said to the Indian Express. “I was so tired from such a long week.”

Earlier in the week, Campriani had grabbed the Air Rifle gold medal as well. For Italy, the result meant the nation’s seventh shooting medal of Rio, the most they have ever won at a single Olympic Games. Over nine days and 15 events, Italy finished at the top of the shooting medals table, with four golds and three silvers, and was followed by Germany. Heavyweights such as the United States and China did not perform as well as expected. For Australia, Skinner’s gold was simply precious.

Stunning postscript in Modern Pentathlon

The verdicts on the performances of Australia’s shooters at the Rio Olympics had already been written, but then Chloe Esposito chipped in with a stunning postscript. The 24-year-old Sydneysider became Australia’s first Modern Pentathlon medallist on the closing weekend, storming home to grab gold and beaming with an impish grin as she stood on the winners’ podium. Chloe’s brother Max Esposito competed as the youngest man in the Modern Pentathlon and finished just six seconds away from a bronze medal.

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