FOX Sports Exclusive
Emmons keeps Olympics in perspective
Matt Emmons, an American Olympic shooter who can only be described as an incredibly good guy, was beaming. Draped around his neck was a purple ribbon, and at the end of the purple ribbon hung the medal that had long eluded him in a shooting event in which he’s been one of the best in the world for a decade.
It’s true: The color of the medal wasn’t perfect. It was bronze. It’s also true that the color of the medal should have been silver. But the 31-year-old Emmons had just done in London what he had done in both Athens and Beijing: He screwed up the final shot. He shot a 7.6 on his final shot, by far the single worst shot of the eight men in the finals. An 8.9, not a very good shot for an Olympian, would have netted him silver.
This event – the men’s 50-meter three position competition, where the shooters take 40 shots apiece from the prone position, the standing position and the kneeling position, and then 10 more shots in the final round – has bedeviled Emmons since his disastrous moment in 2004. There, in Athens, Emmons aimed at the wrong target on his final shot and went from first place to eighth. In Beijing it happened again. Needing only a 6.7 to win gold, he pulled the trigger early, scored a 4.4 and finished in fourth place. (Don’t feel too sorry for him – he won gold and silver in a different event.)
On Monday at the Royal Artillery Barracks, Emmons was shaking as he prepared for that dreaded final shot. He didn’t know where he stood in the standings. He just wanted to shoot his best shot. He closed his eyes. He breathed in deep. He told himself to relax. He breathed out. He visualized shooting the perfect shot.
“In between the ninth and the 10th shot, I told myself, ‘You’re here for a reason,’ ” Emmons said afterward. “We’ve made peace with this shot before. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve just made peace with it. ‘All right. We can do this. It’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re friends now. We’re cool.’ I was just really, really nervous, and it was hard to get myself calmed down.”
Then he shot another awful final shot.
“I was so nervous for that last shot I was happy it was in the target,” Emmons said, smiling. “I looked down. I made bronze. Cool.”
This is the part where we must emphasize: Emmons is an incredibly good guy. He’s gracious and kind. He remembers your name when he’s met you only once. He talks about putting his sport in the proper perspective, and realizes that whatever happens with his wife, who is a Czech Olympic shooter, and his 3-year-old daughter is infinitely more important than what happens on a single rifle shot on a single day in a tucked-away borough of London.
This is also the part where we reveal the twist in the Matt Emmons story: Less than two years ago, he didn’t even know if he’d be here.
Not just sitting here with a bronze medal around his neck. Not just enjoying the Olympic spectacle once again.
He didn’t know if he’d still be here. As in, on this earth.
He’d won three World Cup events in a row back in 2010 and was about to head to a shooting event in Singapore when he started to feel sick: Runny nose, tired. A doctor gave him an ultrasound. The doctor told Emmons to cancel his trip. There was a nodule on the right side of his thyroid. Another doctor took a sample. It was cancer.
“Of course, when you hear the cancer word, you’re like, ‘Geez, what does that mean?’” Emmons told FOXSports.com earlier this summer, when he was training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “Who cares about my athletic career – am I going to live? Am I going to die? Do I have to do chemo? Will I get to see my daughter grow up? Will I get to spend the rest of my life with my wife? All these different things. And then, on top of that, am I ever going to get to compete again? Am I retired now and I don’t even know it? If I have surgery and everything goes well, how will that affect me if I want to continue competing? What’s life going to be like afterward?”
Thyroid cancer, he soon learned, is among the most survivable of cancers. If you’re forced to pick a cancer, this would probably be the one. A four-hour surgery removed the thyroid. The pain medicines made him feel drunk. For two months he couldn’t do chest exercises. He still gets check-ups every six months, making sure the cancer hasn’t come back.
But in his mind, the cancer’s always there. It’s part of who he is. He realized that he loves his sport, he loves training, he loves being one of the best in the world. He also realized that shooting really isn’t very important.
All of which explains why Matt Emmons, one of the good guys, didn’t get upset Monday when reporters asked if he should’ve won silver. It explains why Emmons spoke of the nerves that bubbled up on that final shot with an honesty rare among athletes. It explains why going through his 2004 and 2008 disasters, combined with having a family and conquering cancer, gives him perspective on this sporting stuff.
“It really makes me appreciate how special it is, any time you can go to an Olympics, number one, and number two when you can stand on that podium, regardless of the color of the medal,” the good guy said. “So many other things in life are way more important than just playing a game. Now that I have a family, that’s the biggest medal I could ever win right there.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Stories From Reid Forgrave