LONDON – The problem with the Olympics is that we all become instant experts on sports we know nothing about. And so we define success or failure by what we perceive them to be. Which is how a gold and silver medalist shooter named Matt Emmons came to be a bumbling Olympic punch line.
Elmer Fudd with the shotgun.
Remember the guy shooting for the gold in Athens who hit the wrong target? You know, the same guy who was a shot away from a gold in Beijing only to have his rifle misfire?
Never mind that Emmons did win a gold in Athens for the United States. Or that he won a silver in Beijing. Ignore that he's still one of the best shooters in the world or that he is a five-time World Cup Final gold medalist. Pay no attention to the fact he survived cancer. It's much more fun to chuckle.
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He shot the wrong target? Who's dumb enough to shoot the wrong target?
And this bothers Emmons. Not the fact he shot the wrong target, because sometimes things like this happen in shooting, nor the misfire in Beijing, because that came from an unfortunate attempt to adjust to crowd noise, but this idea that those two moments have made him a joke.
"Sometimes it hurts," he said Thursday as he walked through the Olympic Park on the way to a series of television interviews where he was sure to be asked about Athens and Beijing again and again. "I guess it's like sometimes I'm portrayed in a light like I'm a failure. I'm not a failure."
After Beijing, Emmons went with his wife Katerina, a shooter for the Czech Republic team who won a gold and a silver in China, to her hometown. Many stories were written about her in the Czech press. When Emmons read them he was shocked.
"Some of the articles make me look like a buffoon and she was the golden child," he said.
Then he shrugged his shoulders. What can you do about a legacy you can't control?
"To be honest, if I had won those medals my life would be different," he said. "Maybe I wouldn't have the same perspective. Maybe I wouldn't have come to these Olympics. I like having something to overcome. Sometimes a lot of the bad things that happen to you will spur you to be a better person. A more-rounded individual comes from when something bad happens in your life."
It was on a visit to the Czech Republic in 2010 that he felt run down. Thinking he was fighting off a cold and knowing he had a long flight coming to Singapore where he was supposed to work at a shooting clinic, he went to a local doctor who took an X-ray and said: "You aren't going to Singapore."
What followed was a tense weekend waiting for a biopsy to determine whether the nodule the doctor saw on Emmons's thyroid was actually cancer. Then came the diagnosis that, yes, it was cancer and a trip home to New Jersey and a visit to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where a surgeon told Emmons that he wasn't sure he was going to remove half or all of the thyroid.
"Buddy, I don't care, I'll be asleep," Emmons told the doctor. "Take the whole thing."
So the doctor did.
And the next day Emmons and Katerina left the hospital and walked 12 blocks to a friend's apartment in Manhattan. Two months later he was competing again, the biggest impediment being the sheared shoulder muscles that the doctors had to slice through to get to the thyroid.
Loser? Flop? Failure?
Emmons wonders if the mockery that followed Athens and Beijing strengthened him when the doctors first mentioned the word "cancer." He suspects he handled the diagnosis better than he might have had he not had the adversity of being the man who hit the wrong target and misfired. But he doesn't know. He doesn't try to think about it, because he and his wife have five Olympic medals between them and somehow that's all the confirmation he needs.
In Athens, he won the gold in the 50-meter prone position with a borrowed gun after discovering someone had damaged his personal gun. He finds the fact he could win a medal with an unfamiliar gun a near miracle. He has re-examined what happened when he hit the wrong target in the 50-meter three positions competition and discovered that he was standing the wrong way, trying to overcompensate for a gun that fired slightly off to the side. In Beijing, he decided to rush his routine to handle the growing crowd noise at the end of the three positions. Looking back, he wishes he'd never changed his routine. But it's too late for that.
Ironically, it was right after missing the second gold in Athens that he met Katerina. His Olympics over, he was sitting in a beer garden near the venue with a group of other shooters when she tapped him on the shoulder. She was standing with her father and they just wanted to say how well they thought he handled the missed shot. They gave him a key chain. They told him he would someday have better luck.
Somehow Emmons thought this was all he needed: a lifetime spent in a sport he adores, a pair of Olympic medals, a wife who understands his life's pursuit and a two-year old daughter born just eight months after Beijing.
Except that the world that watches his sport once every four years says he is something else. A loser. A flop. Someone who can't handle the biggest moments. The other day Time ran a graphic naming its biggest Olympic "chokers." Emmons was on the list.
In this championship world, where professional athletes are judged incomplete without a gaudy title ring on their finger and Olympians are nobodies without gold medals, Matt Emmons's gold and silver aren't good enough – not when he could have three golds instead. This is who we have become.
Early Wednesday evening, Emmons stood on a bridge in the middle of the Olympic Park. Looming in front of him was the great stadium into which he will march on Friday night. The sun was warm. A gentle breeze shifted through the grass. It was a perfect moment. One filled with so much promise.
And so the two-time medal-winning Olympian who survived cancer and is among the best in the world at his sport was asked if he must win a gold at this Olympics to make himself whole. He laughed.
"No," he said. "I don't need it. I have a wonderful life. I'm thankful for everything I have. My life's great."
As it should be.
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