With a steady movement, 14-year-old Abby Blakeley finds the clay pigeon escaping a bunker at 80 miles per hour.
Her open eyes fix on her target and, for an instant, everything is calm. To her, the orange disc is suspended stationary in the air.
Blakeley’s brain registers her motive in four one-hundredths of a second, transferring a command to her right index finger, which pulls the trigger of her double-barreled Perazzi shotgun.
The pigeon explodes.
Blakely pulls an empty shell from her gun, tosses it in a bucket below her and casually moves on to the next rubber mat. She begins her pre-shot routine.
This is the sport of bunker trap shooting, or international trap, not to be confused with other variations of trap shooting or clay pigeon shooting that involve skeet or sporting clays.
Blakeley is training at Bridge Creek Clays and South Georgia Youth Shooting Club, a 10-mile drive outside of Moultrie, Ga., and 20 miles due north of Thomasville.
Blakeley lives in Tallahassee, where she will be an incoming Godby High freshman. As many as four times a week, Blakeley, through car rides from her family, travels the 72 miles to Bridge Creek Clays.
“It’s totally worth it,” Blakely said. “Being 14, I still want to do certain things with my friends, but I want to go to the Olympics and so in order to do that I have to train, I have to practice, and I have to be dedicated to it.”
Bridge Creek Clays is one of six USA Shooting Olympic certified shotgun training centers in the nation. This is also where veteran USA Shooting coach Mike Simpson resides. He created the $320,000 facility, which mostly looks like two open fields until things such as voice-activated technology get factored in.
“Abby started before she turned 13, and I usually start with American trap targets which are slow and easy, but she didn’t want to do that,” Simpson said. “She wanted to shoot what the rest of the kids were shooting. We’re a little over a year into it now and Abby is going to be phenomenal.”
Blakely just returned from the USA Shooting National Shotgun Championships in Colorado, where she won her second consecutive national title for her under-14 age group.
In two weeks, she’ll be back in Colorado Springs to compete in the Junior Olympics.
“Abby at 14 years old is No. 1 for her age group in the United States,” Simpson said. “As a coach, it really makes me feel good to see the progression and growth as they mature into it and just get better and better.”
Rise of a Center
In Georgia, shooting is a sanctioned high school sport. From 1994-95, Simpson’s daughter Emma won Georgia AAAA state titles, and in two years time they were in Atlanta to watch a 1996 Olympics competition.
There they met a USA coach who, needing female shooters, soon began training Emma Simpson in Atlanta every weekend. When the facility closed, Mike Simpson created his. He estimates having spent over half a million dollars on it through the years, but now over 300 kids come through his program each year.
Emma Simpson went on to make the U.S. National Team. Mike Simpson has been involved with USA Shooting for over 21 years and for the last four years has been a coach for the organization.
In addition to being named the 2013 national coach of the year, he’s the head coach for the Florida State club team, whose 37 athletes make the same 140-mile round-trip drive twice a week to practice.
“It’s not a money-making thing,” said Simpson, whose guns are supplied though the ammo is not. “What it’s about is helping them realize their dreams. It’s very rewarding. It’s not about shooting. It’s about molding young lives and building tomorrow’s leaders.”
Pull, Shoot, Repeat
Blakeley first picked up a gun while with her dad, firing rifles, but she wanted to try a shotgun. In her first shotgun competition, she hit her first four clays in American trap and was hooked.
Not long after she was introduced to Simpson.
“The first thing I look for as a coach is biomechanics, and that’s hand-eye coordination,” Simpson said. “Typically in this sport, being able to see is not good enough. They need better than 20/20 vision.”
Competitors are given two shots, but if you miss the first, then the clay is only getting farther away. Firing a second shot requires instantaneous reflexes.
Simpson is trying to teach instinct. Shooting by oneself is also far easier than getting on a bigger stage and feeling pressure, which affects nerves and concentration.
“Mental game is huge,” Simpson said. “One of biggest things to teach an athlete is trust yourself. There are two sides of brain, subconscious and conscious. They have to program the subconscious with the conscious. It’s a huge task. But it’s rewarding as a coach to see them grow.”
That’s why when Blakeley completed her first round of 25 clays a few weeks ago, her feat accomplished was beyond impressive.
Competitors have five stations to shoot from. Clay targets will go left twice, right twice and straight once, in an unknown order.
Blakeley scored a perfect 25 on single-barrel shots— that is, she didn’t need a second shot to hit her target.
“We’re taught to make the gun invisible and just focus on the target,” said Blakeley, who took bronze last year at the Junior Olympics. “When I call for it, everything is perfect and still. I can see the target and actually make it stop.
“Coach Mike says, ‘Let your eyes pull the trigger.’ As soon as you get it to stop, that’s your eyes telling you to pull the trigger.”
Blakeley has a legitimate shot to make the U.S. Junior National Team despite her age and relative inexperience. That’s one stepping stone on the way to her ultimate dream.
“We have a 17-year old that’s in Germany right now for the World Championships, and he’s already world ranked,” Simpson said. “Abby has that potential. She’s very dedicated and working hard to get there.”
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