Wharton High senior Matt Sanchez has more than just Olympic dreams. Earlier this month, those dreams nearly came true.
Competing at the Air Rifle U.S. Olympic Trials Feb. 7-9 in Colorado Springs, CO, Sanchez battled against 16 of the sharpest shooters in the country, and briefly toyed with making the Olympic team, before falling four points short and settling for third place. He is instead the first alternate for the squad if either of the shooters who finished ahead of him can’t make the trip.
The top two finishers – 2016 Olympian Lucas Kozeniesky and University of Kentucky sophomore Will Shaner – will make up the U.S. Olympic Air Rifle team. As the first alternate, Sanchez will only go if either Kozeniesky or Shaner can’t make the trip to Tokyo for the Games, which run from July 24-Aug.9.
This Colorado Springs trip was the second part of the Olympic Trials. The first part was held last fall, and Sanchez actually entered the second part in seventh place.
“The top two people were way ahead of everyone, so it looked like they were pretty much going to make it,” Sanchez said.
However, the second-place shooter from Part I had a terrible first day, and Sanchez was excellent. Shooting at a target the size of a size 12-point font period from 10.94 yards away from a standing position, he scored a 627.5 (out of 654), and made a big move up to third-place overall. Sanchez made up four points on the first day, and needed to do it again the final day to possibly nab the second spot on the team.
“I didn’t expect to make the team, honestly,” Sanchez says. “But then, things got a little crunchy going into the second day. I thought if I shoot the same thing, I could make it into second place.”
Sanchez admits he may have been overthinking on Day Two, and he shot a 624.1, and finished four points behind second-place Shaner. Kozeniesky tied a world record on Day 2 with a 633.5.
“It was a little bittersweet, to be honest,” Sanchez says. “If it was a year ago, and I made third place, I’d be really happy — ‘Oh hey, I got third place at a national competition, I did really good’ — But, seeing that I was only four points away from making an Olympic team and getting to go is a little bittersweet.”
Being first alternate is still quite an accomplishment, especially for a 17-year-old balancing high-level national competition with graduating from high school. Sanchez already has signed a scholarship to attend college-shooting powerhouse West Virginia University in Morgantown in the fall.
Sanchez took his first shots at age 9 at a gun range in Las Vegas while visiting his grandmother. From those first eager moments, he has evolved into a finely-tuned technician. In most air rifle competitions, you fire 60 shots in a 75-minute time limit, not the steady rat-a-tat shooting at a range you might be more familiar with. It takes an amazing amount of precision and training.
Sometimes, your heartbeat or a vein is pumping enough to jostle your sights. Sometimes, Sanchez says you need to move the rifle off a vein, or shoot between heartbeats.
“His biggest attributes are his patience and his attention to detail,” says Matt’s father Freddy. “He does everything at 100-percent maximum. He is a very patient individual. My patience gets tested just watching him.”
Sanchez, unlike much of his competition, doesn’t have the benefit of a college or Olympic facility at which to train. The nearest specialized facility is in Orlando, and he also travels to south Florida to train with his coach, 1996 and 2000 Olympic team member Jayme Shipley.
Otherwise, Matt’s training takes place at a makeshift and poorly lit set-up at his Heritage Isles home. His garage isn’t quite big enough, so while the target is set up on one of its walls, to get 10.9 yards away he has to open the door and shoot from inside the home’s foyer.
“It’s been a real blessing to see him progress to this level,” Freddy says. “To be able to shoot in the garage and get a spot as an Olympic alternate, I can’t ask for anything more. He has a college scholarship, pretty much a full ride, he’s a member of national teams, he travels the world – China, Korea, Germany, you name it.”
Freddy rubs his left forearm.
“I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.”
Sanchez might be too cool for goosebumps, but he is now more homed in than ever on making the 2024 Olympic team.
By then, he’ll have had four more years of training, this time at top-notch facilities at WVU and the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and the memory of 2020 pushing him.
“I would have loved to make the Olympic team, but I’m happy with where I am right now,” Sanchez says. “This experience has really pushed me and given me a drive to be a really, really good shooter. I know I need to ensure that, at the next Olympic trials, I won’t miss making the team by a couple of points.”