There aren’t many 20-year olds who have an Olympic gold medal. Ginny Thrasher is one of them, having won gold in the women’s 10-meter air rifle competition at the 2016 games in Rio.
Her resume also includes a plethora of NCAA and national titles. But what is perhaps most impressive about Thrasher the athlete is not the titles she has won or the accolades she has received but rather the pleasure and satisfaction she derives from her sport.
An abundance of other athletes should be as fortunate.
Thrasher grew up in Springfield, Virginia, less than 15 miles from Washington, D.C. Her first sport was figure skating but her talents did not match her desire.
“I wasn’t very good at (figure skating) but I loved it,” she recalls. “And I wanted to go to the Olympics in figure skating. And eventually, I realized that ‘Well, that’s not going to happen’.”
When she started shooting however it was a different matter.
For Thrasher, picking up a rifle for the first time was at first a means connecting to a family tradition. “It’s always been a family thing for me,” she says.
“The first time I went out hunting was with my grandfather and my father and I have two older brothers. I guess I really enjoyed the family time.”
A year later, Thrasher joined the rifle team at West Springfield High. It was a natural fit. “I feel like you really have to find a sport that matches your genetic code,” she says, “and I’m 5-foot 1. I’m never going to play basketball or volleyball or any of those and I found a sport that fit my genetic code.”
While in high school, Thrasher earned an abundance of honors in national-level competitions. When she enrolled at West Virginia University in the fall of 2015 the Olympics were less than a year away. But she was less concerned about making the Olympic team than she was about earning a place on the West Virginia rifle team; under coach Jon Hammond, the Mountaineers have one of the premier collegiate programs in the country.
“It was always just ‘I want to shoot, I want to get better, I want to enjoy it,’” Thrasher says, “and that’s what I did. “(Making the West Virginia team) was a big goal of mine and it was something I’m really proud of. I figured “I’ll shoot a few international matches, I’ll shoot the (Olympic) Trials, but it never really was 100 percent about the Olympic dream for me. It was about doing the best I could.”
Thrasher says being an elite competitive shooter requires extraordinary physical conditioning. “if you look at us, it looks like we don’t move; it looks like our sport is just standing there completely still,” she says, and that’s actually not true. What it takes is a lot of discipline. We work out a lot, we do a lot of things to strengthen our core; we do a lot of cardio to have a low-resting heart rate and I think the major thing is we practice four hours a day.
The guns we hold are about 12 pounds. It looks easy but to hold that 12-pound gun for four hours a day; it takes lots of physical conditioning and to be able to have that control of your eyes and your body.
The positions are very physical and just looking at the geometry, you have to really have a good body awareness of where you are and what moving your left foot one inch is going to do to your entire position. You really have to understand the mechanics of each position that you’re in.”
Mental focus factors into the equation as well. “One of the other reasons we practice so long is when we compete it is such a high level of intensity and you have to be able to focus at that level,” Thrasher says.
“It’s a hard balance between focusing and also letting it happen naturally and not over trying but we practice being able to have the best technique when we compete and make it very natural and innate. The techniques that we use are very much like any other sport.”
“It’s like baseball. When you swing a bat you don’t stop it halfway through the swing; you complete the motion and that’s kind of what shooting is, the follow through of completing the motion and it’s very much like you’re doing the same 30-second or one-minute action over and over again. You’re trying to get consistency, robotic-like consistency when you repeat the action.”
As a freshman in 2015-16 Thrasher helped the Mountaineers win their fourth consecutive NCAA rifle championship. Shooting against opponents of both genders; collegiate rifle is a coed sport, Thrasher herself won both the NCAA individual titles (small bore and air rifle).
An engineering student with an analytical approach to her sport, Thrasher developed ‘The Process’ that she utilizes to this day. In simple terms, ‘The Process’ involves separating the goal of performing well from the actual result. “You can’t control the outcome,” Thrasher points out. “You can’t control whether that shot is a 10 or whether you get on the Olympic team.
“You can only really control your actual process and what you’re doing about that, and once you realize that you just shoot so much more freely. And, when you compete, you can really be there in the moment, competing, and not be so emotionally attached to the outcome. And I feel like so many athletes want that number, they want that score or the win, and they’re so emotionally attached to the outcome that they actually get in their own way mentally.”
Thrasher works with Dr. Raymond Prior, a West Virginia graduate who offers performance consulting for athletes and works regularly with his alma mater’s rifle team. “He really helped me to develop this mindset,” Thrasher says, and it hasn’t been easy. I work on my mental game almost as much as my physical game. But to me, that’s why I see a lot of results and that’s what makes me a strong competitor.”
Thrasher’s approach certainly paid off in Rio. The women’s 10-meter air rifle event was held on August 6, the morning after the opening ceremonies and other assorted pre-competition activities. “You go through team processing,” Thrasher says, “and you get all these outcome-based things. You get clothes and you get interviews and all those outcome-based things and I knew that it would be incredibly hard to be focused, but I had a game plan and I stuck to my game plan very well. It was hard but I had a plan, I stuck to the plan and I felt like I had prepared for many, many months to go and be able to do this and that preparation kind of carried me through.”
Thrasher was America’s first gold medalist at the Rio games, which brought her a significant amount of attention while she prepared for her second event, the women’s 3 positions, on August 11; she wound up placing 11th. “A lot of attention and emotions that arose,” she says, “and in my sport that publicity and attention isn’t something we’re used to. It was incredibly hard to be able to refocus after a day like that and you know your sleep schedule is screwed up and everything is screwed up. I think for me that was the hardest part of the Olympics, being able to refocus and come back five days later and still be competitive and do what I wanted to do.”
Following the Games, Thrasher returned to West Virginia for her sophomore year and helped Mountaineers win their fifth consecutive NCAA title. Individually, she placed second in the small-bore event and seventh in the air rifle.
Thrasher will be starting her junior year at West Virginia this fall. Shooting aside, Morgantown a place where she feels very much at home.
“I find being a student-athlete really, really rewarding,” she says, “because what it does is it gives me balanced in my life. “I like to be very, very busy, “it’s just my personality. I’m pretty Type A, I like to keep busy and keep doing things all the time and to be able to go to classes in the morning and then go to practice in the afternoon. Then when your head hits the pillow at night you fall asleep because you’re tired. “I wanted to come back (to college) and have a normal life.”
“I’m very much in a college town and I am famous. People recognize on the street, going to class, all the time. In some ways, it’s very, very normal and in other ways, it’s not at all. Morgantown is such a great community and coming back after the Olympics they kind of adopted me and they were really proud of me and you know that’s something you don’t get in every city you live in.”
After reaching the pinnacle of her sport by winning Olympic gold, Thrasher could be forgiven if her enthusiasm for competitive shooting diminished or disappeared altogether under the pressure of expectations, her own, or those of others. That has not happened to her is indicative of her maturity and perspective.
“I’ve seen that happen to a lot of athletes in my sport,” she says, “but for me, that’s why the enjoyment is so important and that’s why I work on the mental game so much. Because when you’re emotionally attached to the expectations that other people put on you then, of course, you’re not going to enjoy it. And if you don’t enjoy the sport, of course, you’re going to quit.”
“So my priority is really enjoying the sport and doing whatever I can to make that a reality. For me, I love shooting on my college team because it gives me a team to shoot for, even though it’s an individual sport.”
“I really like seeing that improvement and having the freshman come in and seeing them improve and being a part of that. I think it’s really really important that you enjoy the sport. and I know if there is ever a time when I enjoy it less I do whatever I can to make sure I do enjoy it.