The Covid pandemic made competing more difficult, but did not throw Matt Sanchez off his goal of competing at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

New Tampa’s Matt Sanchez, a 2020 Wharton High graduate and Heritage Isles resident, found out last month that even though he finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials to qualify as an alternate, he would join the U.S. Air Rifle Olympic team at this year’s games and has been in Japan since July 16.

Sanchez, 18, was at a shooting competition in Georgia eating dinner with his father, Freddy, when his dad left the room to take a phone call. When he returned, he told his son the good news.

“He was very proud,” says Sanchez. “I was really surprised. I didn’t think I would be going.”

Sanchez finished third at the Olympic Air Rifle Trials in February 2020 at Colorado Springs, CO, out of 16 of the sharpest shooters in the country. Only the top two finishers — 2016 Olympian Lucas Kozeniesky and University of Kentucky junior Will Shaner  — were selected to compete for the U.S. team, and at the time, alternates typically wouldn’t get to make the trip to the Olympics, which ended up being delayed for a year by Covid-19, with the team.

At that time, Sanchez turned his attention to the 2024 Games in Paris. But then, the call came.

“It was well over a year of thinking I was not going,” says Sanchez, who thinks that with Covid still prevalent and the chances of someone getting sick always a possibility, it made having the alternate available essential this year.

Sanchez spent the last month poring over online modules and general policy training for the Olympics, getting his Covid vaccination info and gun serial numbers together and preparing for two weeks in Japan. 

Because shooting is traditionally among the first events held at the Olympics — this year, the competitions are from July 24-August 2 — Sanchez won’t be staying for the entire Games.

Because he is still unlikely to compete, Sanchez, who started shooting when he was 9 years old, is somewhat muted in his excitement. His reaction will be different in 2024 if he finishes in the top two at the trials.

“When I made the team as an alternate in 2020, it didn’t really set me off too much,” Sanchez says. “I was happy with my placement. But, it gave me the drive to make the team for the next Olympics. I missed out this time by four points; that’s not too big a margin.”

Sanchez is emboldened by the advanced training he will receive between now and then as a member of the U.S. National team, as well as being a team member at 19-time NCAA champion West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown, where he just finished his freshman year. 

Former Wharton Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps rifle teammate Ben Salas, who signed with North Carolina State, and Sanchez are believed to be the first Hillsborough County athletes to sign full shooting scholarships at Division I universities.

After the year Sanchez has had, the Japan trip is a welcome consolation prize.

Because of Covid, his performance at the Olympic Trials turned out to be his last serious competition for roughly 15 months.

The last half of Sanchez’s senior year at Wharton was wiped out by the pandemic, and he had nowhere to train or compete during the summer, except in his makeshift home set up. 

Because the Air Rifle target — the size of a 12-point font period — is 10 meters (or nearly 33 feet) away, Matt sets targets on one wall in the garage and, because the garage isn’t quite long enough, he shoots at it from inside his home’s foyer.

In college, Sanchez’s training hasn’t been different than any other scholarship sport — it takes a good portion of his time.

Prior to college, Sanchez would practice shooting a few times a week, ramping up for competitions. In college it’s been more like 5-6 days a week, 5-6 hours a day.

Preventing burnout, as well as balancing schoolwork, and not having an outlet to compete because everything was locked down, was definitely a challenge, although Sanchez was one of three rifle team members recently named to the 2020-21 Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team.

In his second semester at WVU, the Mountaineers were able to compete in some modified matches, and advanced to the NCAA Championships, where they finished fourth, but Sanchez was unable to participate because he was contact-traced for Covid a few weeks before the event.

Finally, in May, he was able to return to top-flight competition, competing at the National Rifle Junior Olympic Shooting Championships at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he finished third in men’s smallbore competition, which is shooting a .22 caliber rifle in three positions — standing, kneeling and prone.

Air Rifle is basically firing 60 shots in a 75-minute time limit from a standing position only.

“Everyone was pretty rusty,” Sanchez says.

When he returns from Japan, the Wharton grad will be back at college training with one of the country’s best programs, planning for more international competitions with the U.S. National Team and with Paris always in his sights.

“That’s what I’m shooting for,” Sanchez says. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

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