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Overcoming nightmare to fulfill dream
It was the middle of an October night when police knocked on the door at Sarah Scherer’s home.
Her mother answered. From her bedroom at their apartment near the Texas Christian University campus in Fort Worth, Sarah heard words being spoken. A moment later, her mother rushed into Sarah’s bedroom. She was hysterical.
“Your day, your life, everything about who you are changes in one sentence,” Sarah says today, as she’s preparing for the London Olympics, her first, with the USA Shooting team.
Courtesy of Sarah Scherer
What that one sentence said was this: Sarah’s older brother, Stephen Scherer, who’d competed for the USA Shooting team at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, had earlier that night taken out his handgun and killed himself.
Yes, he’d been depressed. He’d dropped out of West Point after two years, and Sarah had noticed a heaviness descend on her brother. Family and friends watched him spiral downward, and they reached out to him, but they never thought he’d take his own life.
But really, how can you ever know? How can you truly be inside of someone’s head, even if he’s your only brother, the one you’d learned to shoot .22 rifles with at age 9, your best shooting coach and your best friend? How can you tell which side of him was winning out, the side of darkness or the side that propelled him to study his Bible, to go to church, to give his bike to a friend who needed it more than he? How can you ever know when, somewhere in that deep sadness, he’d crossed some murky line between depressed and suicidal?
Truth is, you can’t. Sarah Scherer knows that now. She’s asked why, and the answer’s always left her wanting. She’s not angry at her brother for taking his own life. She knew he was always the person who would help others but never the one to ask for help. She just wishes people would talk about these sorts of things, talk about them in a way that doesn’t make someone feel like an alien or a freak for having these thoughts.
The two were as tight as a brother and sister can be. That’s what happens when you grow up with your single mom north of Boston, when you’re home-schooled because your mom runs a day care. They did everything together: Competitive soccer together. Shooting BB guns in the backyard. And going on family trips to assisted living centers, where they’d make friends with elderly people and play games with them.
So, of course, when Stephen started going to a shooting range in middle school to learn how to shoot .22 rifles, his 9-year-old little sister came with him.
It’s an odd, mental sport. You’re not running around and working up a sweat. Instead, you’re looking at a target for hours on end. You focus on your body’s foundation and your bone structure. You make tiny adjustments: relax a muscle in your right arm, adjust a muscle in your left foot, focus on just the trigger that final split second so your body doesn’t move.
“That could seem extremely boring, but we put mind to it and it’s not boring because you’re focusing on so many things,” Sarah said. “But I don’t know if I would have kept up with it as a sport if my brother and I weren’t doing it together. It’s a precision sport, concentration, focus, mind control…
“And my brother was my first coach, the one who got me to where I am today.”
Where she is today is a place this brother and sister dreamed of in their youth. This collegiate season, when Scherer’s Horned Frogs rifle team won their second national title in three years, Sarah could feel her brother’s advice in competitions. She’d remember how he’d sometimes poke her to throw her off in practice. Or his coaching that she should work on her shot plan and body awareness.
It’s been a year and a half since Sarah’s brother killed himself. Sarah has rarely thought of the moment when her mom burst into her room. How could she? The Horned Frogs were in the middle of their season. Two weeks after the suicide, she competed in her first air rifle competition since his death. It was a strange feeling, because everyone at the competition knew what happened to her brother, but few knew what to say.
And it was an even stranger feeling, that first time she shot after her brother’s death.
“It was really hard at first, knowing that my squeezing the trigger was exactly same way my brother killed himself,” she said. “You come to terms with that eventually. You put aside the political issues. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to shoot a handgun again. I did, and it was fine, and I was happy. That was a huge part of getting over this.”
As she heads to London, Sarah, now 21 and studying to be a dietitian, knows being at the Olympics will bring back difficult memories of her brother. She was there in Beijing with her mother, watching her brother finish a disappointing 27th.
She thought about bringing a memento to London to remember him by, but that seemed too cheap of a remembrance. She thought about doing something for him on the medal stand if she wins, like dedicate a gold medal to him, but that seemed cheap too. His memory means more than that to her.
“His presence — he’s the most important part of my life, and definitely one of the top people that’s impacted me,” she said. “Who I am is him. His presence is more than just a part of a certain ceremony, a certain shooting performance. It’s part of who I am. I carry that with me no matter where I go.”
“Thought about having something with me to represent him,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, he’s always with me.”
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.
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