Matthew Emmons and his bittersweet memories of the Olympic Games

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 30: Matthew Emmons of the United States competes in the Men's 10m Air Rifle qualification on Day 3 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at The Royal Artillery Barracks on July 30, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 30: Matthew Emmons of the United States competes in the Men's 10m Air Rifle qualification on Day 3 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at The Royal Artillery Barracks on July 30, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The USA rifle shooter who may be better known for the Olympic gold medals he didn’t win, rather than the one he did. 

Background

Born in 1981, Matthew Emmons is one of the best shooters in the history of American shooting. Across his 23-year career, the four-time Olympian has won numerous titles, including one gold, one silver and one bronze at the Olympic Games, plus a gold and bronze medal at the World Championships.

But he might be better known for the Olympic gold medals he didn’t win than the one he did. His astonishing performance in the finals of three consecutive Olympic Games made him jokingly admit that “maybe he is more famous in China than in the United States”.

But why would that be?

ATHENS, GREECE - AUGUST 20:    Schiessen: Olympische Spiele Athen 2004, Athen; Kleinkaliber liegend 50m / Maenner / Sieger; Matthew EMMONS / USA - Gold 20.08.04.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - AUGUST 20: Schiessen: Olympische Spiele Athen 2004, Athen; Kleinkaliber liegend 50m / Maenner / Sieger; Matthew EMMONS / USA - Gold 20.08.04. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Bongarts

The finals

In 2004, a 23-year-old Emmons stepped onto the Olympic Games shooting range for the first time. At first, everything went smoothly. Even though his gun had been tampered with, he still won the men’s 50m rifle prone gold medal with a gun borrowed from a teammate. When recalling the experience in an interview with Alaska’s Capital City Online newspaper in 2016, Emmons joked: "I never found out who the saboteur was, but I'd like to know so I could shake their hand and say thanks."

However, this unpredictable experience seemed to have exhausted all of Emmons’ luck at the Olympics.

Two days after winning that gold medal, Emmons stood on the stage of the men's 50m rifle three-position final, during which he had established a huge advantage, with a three-point lead over the second-placed athlete prior to the final shot.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

Emmons scored zero on his final shot after misfiring at another competitor’s target. He blew the three-point lead, dropped to eighth, and handed Chinese shooter JIA Zhanbo the title.

This is just the beginning of his final shot curse at the Olympics.

At Beijing 2008, Matthew Emmons appeared in the 50m rifle three-position final once again, after winning the silver medal in the men’s 50m rifle prone. Things followed a similar pattern to four years earlier and, after the ninth shot, he retained a four point lead over the second placed athlete. It meant that as long as his final shot received 6.7 points, Emmons would take the gold medal - a relatively simple task for an athlete of his calibre. However, in the process of aiming his gun at the bullseye, Emmons accidentally pulled the trigger, handing the gold medal to another Chinese athlete, QIU Jian.

Giving away two Olympic gold medals when his "hand already touched them” put Emmons under a tremendous amount of pressure. He even sought the help of psychologists to help him keep calm.

But things would only get worse.

At the London 2012 Olympics Games, Emmons reached the Olympic men’s 50m rifle three-position final for the third time. After the 9th shot in the final he again led his opponent - this time by over a point. But once again, his final shot was underwhelming, receiving 7.6 points, and relegating him to the bronze medal position.

BEIJING - AUGUST 15: Matthew Emmons (L) of the United States is congratulated by his wife Katerina Emmons after winning silver medal in the Men's 50m Rifle Prone Final at the Beijing Shooting Range Hall on Day 7 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 15, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
BEIJING - AUGUST 15: Matthew Emmons (L) of the United States is congratulated by his wife Katerina Emmons after winning silver medal in the Men's 50m Rifle Prone Final at the Beijing Shooting Range Hall on Day 7 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 15, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
2008 Getty Images

The outcome

Emmons went on to compete at Rio 2016, his fourth Olympic Games. But this time he only ranked 19th in the 50m rifle three-position qualification round and he did not qualify for the following stage.

Although Matthew Emmons' Olympic experience was bitter in terms of competition, from a life perspective, the Olympics also gifted him a happy family.

After losing his gold medal at Athens 2004, Emmons sat in a beer garden near the shooting range, drowning his sorrows after one of the biggest blunders in Olympic history, when he felt a tap on the shoulder.

Czech shooter Katerina Kurkova (now named Katerina Emmons) and her father approached Emmons to sympathise with him and gave him a four-leaf-clover key chain to wish him good luck in the future. At that moment, a seed of love took root.

The two Olympians, both of whom won gold, silver, and bronze medals, got married in June 2007 and went on to have four children.

On 11 September 11, 2019, Matthew Emmons announced his retirement via Instagram, confirming that he would officially end his sports career in March 2020.

Looking back on his career, Matthew Emmons does not see his Olympic frustrations in a negative light. During an interview with USA Today, he said: "Had I not made that mistake, maybe I retire from shooting, maybe I don't marry Katy. Those failures, those mishaps, the things that I've learned in the process have made my life, my athletic career so much richer, so much more fulfilling than anything I could have done had I won those medals."

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The time has come to announce my retirement from sport shooting as an athlete. I actually decided in March, but only now was I able to get my family together and do it the way I wanted. The picture here not only shows all of my international medals, but more importantly, my family. These are the people who helped make it happen. Thanks mom and dad for, well, everything! I can never thank you enough for your guidance, encouragement, teaching me good morals and habits, support, and love. I hope I can be half the parent to my kids as you were to me. My wife, Katy, and my children - for always believing in me, encouraging me, and certainly giving me some good advice along the way. I also must thank a ton of other people. Shooting is mainly an individual sport, but success does not come alone. I may miss some people, but here’s the short list: my coaches: Paul Adamowski, Ed Shea, Randy Pitney, Dave Johnson, and Dan Durben. All of them helped shape me as an athlete and person. Thank you! My teammates and competitors. It was fun and you all helped make it that way. My sponsors: Anschutz, Bleiker, Pardini, Walther, Eley, RWS, Champion, AHG, Kustermann, Hitex, Shaklee, Salon Samui, among others. USA Shooting and the USOPC. Without those two organizations, none of this would have happened. The University Of Alaska Fairbanks. Drs. Hana Grégrová, Yuman Fong, and Ashok Shaha - these three saved my life and helped me get back to competing when I had thyroid cancer. Heather Linden and the staff at Sports Med in Colorado Springs - they put me back together after some serious physical issues before and after London. Because of them, my career not only continued, but got even better. Per Sandberg - my best friend. You’ve always been there in every situation and you’ve had such a positive impact on my life. The world needs more people like you. Lastly, thanks to all the fans out there! So why retire a year before the next Olympics? Simply put, it’s time. Sure, there’s logic to it, but it’s also a feeling. It’s time to move on to other things, to exercise other talents and grow as a person. I’m ready and excited for it. I had a great run. I shot for 23 years, 22 of which were

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