Anna G. Larson, Published January 18 2014
Sights set on the Olympics: NDSU student ranked one of top pistol shooters in nation
The 19-year-old North Dakota State University sophomore is one of the top pistol shooters in the U.S.
“People are surprised that I’m a pistol shooter and a girl,” Townsend says.
“They don’t realize it’s an Olympic sport and I travel the world competing. A lot of people think it’s a men’s sport, but then there’s this girl.”
The Kalispell, Mont., native didn’t know it was an Olympic sport either when she tried out for the U.S.A. Shooting Junior Olympic team at age 16. A 4-H leader encouraged her to give it a try, and she placed second and received an invite onto the team.
Townsend is ranked seventh in the nation for female pistol shooters, and she’s a member of the Junior Olympic Shooting Developmental Team and Junior Olympic Traveling International Team. Her ultimate goal is to score a spot at the 2020 summer Olympics.
“If I make the Olympics, I will feel on top of this world. I will feel that I have finally done something for myself that I truly love,” she says.
The sport’s exposed the self-described “farm girl” (she’ll never give up her cowboy boots) to life outside of Montana and North Dakota. So far, she’s traveled throughout the U.S. and to the Czech Republic to compete. On Monday, she flies to Munich, Germany, where she’ll face off against some of the most elite athletes in the world.
In the 10-meter air pistol event, Townsend’s specialty, competitors have 40 shots and aim to hit a bull’s-eye from 10 meters away. Athletes need to consistently shoot in the nine and 10 area (closest to the bull’s-eye) to have a chance at placing. The sport is so competitive that scores can come down to a tenth of a point.
“Some guys get jealous because I beat them,” Townsend says of her male opponents. “But some push me to do better, and we encourage each other. I love helping other people.”
Kyle Boster, a sophomore at NDSU and president of the school’s marksmanship club, says the key to doing well at a shooting match is sharp mental focus.
“With every shot, you have to have the perfect mental image in your mind of how that shot’s going to be. If you shoot one and it doesn’t go well, that plays into your mental factor quite a bit,” Boster says. “Alana’s mastered that. It’s a very patient game. A lot of people think that since it’s shooting, it’s been male-dominated. I think women are just as good, if not better.”
Townsend has achieved a handful of dead-center shots that’ve earned her 10.9 points each, the highest score from a single shot. As shots stray from the bull’s-eye, the point value decreases. The shooter with the most points wins the match.
“My coach back home always tells me that shooting is 80 percent mental and the rest is ability,” she says. “You’ve just got to worry about what you’re doing, not what someone else is doing.”
U.S.A. Shooting assistant national pistol coach Eric Pueppke, of Amenia, N.D., says Townsend is successful because of her positive attitude.
“That’s what makes her good. To be a good shooter, you’re trying to stand motionlessly with a pistol in one hand. Sometimes you’re in another place, another country. You can’t let it get to you,” he says. “Good shooters are glass-half-full people.”
Pueppke, who’s also the pistol coach for NDSU’s Marksmanship Club, says that in his nearly 40 years of experience, he’s learned shooting is much like golf.
“It’s an individual thing,” he says. “I laugh and like to tell people that it’s the most non-violent sport. You’ll shoot against people from dozens of countries but then everyone goes out for pizza together.”
Townsend calls her opponents friends and likes to talk with each one before a match. After she checks in with them, she finds a quiet spot to sit and shut her eyes. The ritual helps her feel centered before she takes aim.
“It feels sometimes like there’s so much pressure on me, especially in big matches,” she says. “I tell myself I’m going to do my best, and everyone has a bad day but today is not going to be that day for me. Once you put a shot down a range, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
She practices once or twice a week, but she’ll amp up training for the Olympic trials. Top shooters practice daily or at least five to six days a week, Townsend says.
Practice usually consists of dry firing, or pulling the trigger without ammunition. It helps Townsend concentrate on her trigger pull and stance before loading the pistol with ammunition.
In addition to range practice, she eats a healthy diet and exercises so she can stand for long periods of time.
“It’s very draining,” she says, adding that shooters need to have a strong core and arms to endure the stress of holding a gun.
Although there’ll be summer Olympic games in 2016, Townsend’s priority that year will be finishing college. She says it’s tough to make a living as a pistol shooter, so she wants to secure a career in agribusiness. Her aspiration is to open an accounting business to aid farmers and ranchers with taxes and keeping books.
“Since I grew up on a farm, I knew agriculture was really important, to me and to everybody,” she says.
Once Townsend graduates, she’ll concentrate on earning a spot at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Pueppke is confident she’s on her way. The fastest he’s seen a shooter advance to the Olympics is 17 years from when they start the sport. Townsend started shooting pistol at age 12, and if she makes the 2020 Olympics, she’ll be his quickest learner.
In the U.S., 50 women age 20 or younger receive an invite onto the Junior Olympic team and only two of those women are named to the Junior Olympic Shooting Developmental Team, Pueppke explains.
“Alana’s one of them,” he says. “She’s the top of the top.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525