The distance between success and failure on the grandest scale is measured in millimeters. Glory is so painfully close to anguish that the tiniest mistake can lead to a lifetime of regret. But sometimes in even the most humiliating defeat, there is an even more lasting triumph.
This is the Forgotten History of a Shot Through the Heart.
As the 2004 Olympics in Athens approached, Matthew Emmons was at the top of his game. Widely considered one of the best rifle shooters in the world, he was the junior world record holder in the 50-meter three positions event and had just won the International Shooting Sport Federation’s World Cup in both the three positions and the 50-meter prone.
At just 23 years old, he was poised to win gold on the world’s biggest stage. Better yet, he had a chance at history: Winning gold medals in both 50-meter events at the same Olympics; something that had never been done before. If he could, he would cement his legacy as one of the greatest marksmen of all time.
It would be the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice, and he couldn’t wait. Everything was going his way.
Until suddenly, it wasn’t.
Just before the start of the Olympic trials, someone—likely a competitor for a spot on the team—sabotaged his rifle with what appeared to be a screwdriver. His precisely tuned gun was completely unusable, and without it he risked missing out on not just a gold medal, but the Olympics altogether.
Thinking quickly, he borrowed a rifle from an old college teammate and used it to qualify for the US team. Matthew never did find out who sabotaged his rifle, but he considered it a blessing in disguise, as he liked the feel of his borrowed gun and continued to use it as he trained for Athens.
The first event in his pursuit of double gold was the one in which he felt less confident: The 50-meter prone. His junior competitions, college events, and even World Cups hadn’t quite prepared him for the pressure of the Olympic stage. And nothing could have prepared him for a saboteur forcing him to use someone else’s rifle.
He stared at the target ahead of him, steadied himself and aimed. He squeezed the trigger. A bullseye. He squeezed it again. Another bullseye. And another. And another. Matthew Emmons, using a borrowed rifle, had won the gold medal.
Now came the hard part—history. Another gold medal and he would be a legend in his sport, an immortal whose name would be forever synonymous with unparalleled greatness.
He finished the medal qualifying round just off the lead and jumped into first after just his first shot. His next shot was another bullseye. So was the next. As he lined up for his final shot, his lead was insurmountable. History was his.
He squeezed the trigger again. Another bullseye…but at the wrong target. Matthew had done the unimaginable; he had accidentally aimed and fired at the target next to his. His score on his final shot was a zero. History was gone. The gold medal was gone. So was the silver. And the bronze. Matthew dropped all the way to eighth and did so in as embarrassing a fashion as one possibly could.
With the entire world watching, he hadn’t just missed out on immortality, he had gained it for all the wrong reasons. It was one of the worst mistakes ever made in competitive shooting, and Matthew was devastated.
Still, he kept his head up and congratulated the medalists with genuine emotion; he was happy for them even though he was despondent and furious with himself for making such a crucial mistake. But he wouldn’t let his own disappointment ruin his competitors’ and American teammates’ joy. So he celebrated with them at a beer garden near the Olympic village that night.
Katie Kurkova, a member of the Czech Republic’s rifle team, approached him with her father and consoled him over his loss but also told him that the way he handled such disappointment with class and grace was an inspiration.
“You were the real winner,” they said.
Katerina gave him a small four-leaf clover locket that she said always gave her luck. Because Matthew showed such great sportsmanship, she said, he deserved some good luck for a change.
Matthew thanked her, and the two went their separate ways.
Over the next few years, though, it seemed that Katerina’s good luck charm didn’t work. While Matthew did win silver in the 50-meter prone at the 2008 Olympics, he missed the medal stand altogether in the three positions after a wild final shot that he called a “freak of nature.”
Two years later, Matthew was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. But through it all, he kept his head up and continued to battle adversity with the same grace and class he did in 2004. What was his secret? The love of his wife, Katerina Kurkova.
After they met on that fateful day in 2004, they kept correspondence and reconnected a few years later, marrying in 2007 and having four children. With their love and support, Matthew beat his cancer and won a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics and competed again in 2016.
Today, the Emmons family lives happily in the Czech Republic and as Matthew reflects on what might have been the worst day of his life, a day that he lost Olympic immortality, he gained something even greater.
As he puts it, “it turns out that day wasn’t so bad after all.”
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