Matthew Emmons and his bittersweet memories of the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The USA rifle shooter who may be better known for the Olympic gold medals he didn’t win, rather than the one he did. 

Picture by 2012 Getty Images

Background

Born in 1981, Matthew Emmons is one of the best shooters in the history of American shooting. Across his 23-year career, the four-time Olympian has won numerous titles, including one gold, one silver and one bronze at the Olympic Games, plus a gold and bronze medal at the World Championships.

But he might be better known for the Olympic gold medals he didn’t win than the one he did. His astonishing performance in the finals of three consecutive Olympic Games made him jokingly admit that “maybe he is more famous in China than in the United States”.

But why would that be?

Mathew Emmons won gold in Athen 2004
Picture by Bongarts

The finals

In 2004, a 23-year-old Emmons stepped onto the Olympic Games shooting range for the first time. At first, everything went smoothly. Even though his gun had been tampered with, he still won the men’s 50m rifle prone gold medal with a gun borrowed from a teammate. When recalling the experience in an interview with Alaska’s Capital City Online newspaper in 2016, Emmons joked: "I never found out who the saboteur was, but I'd like to know so I could shake their hand and say thanks."

However, this unpredictable experience seemed to have exhausted all of Emmons’ luck at the Olympics.

Two days after winning that gold medal, Emmons stood on the stage of the men's 50m rifle three-position final, during which he had established a huge advantage, with a three-point lead over the second-placed athlete prior to the final shot.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

Emmons scored zero on his final shot after misfiring at another competitor’s target. He blew the three-point lead, dropped to eighth, and handed Chinese shooter JIA Zhanbo the title.

This is just the beginning of his final shot curse at the Olympics.

At Beijing 2008, Matthew Emmons appeared in the 50m rifle three-position final once again, after winning the silver medal in the men’s 50m rifle prone. Things followed a similar pattern to four years earlier and, after the ninth shot, he retained a four point lead over the second placed athlete. It meant that as long as his final shot received 6.7 points, Emmons would take the gold medal - a relatively simple task for an athlete of his calibre. However, in the process of aiming his gun at the bullseye, Emmons accidentally pulled the trigger, handing the gold medal to another Chinese athlete, QIU Jian.

Giving away two Olympic gold medals when his "hand already touched them” put Emmons under a tremendous amount of pressure. He even sought the help of psychologists to help him keep calm.

But things would only get worse.

At the London 2012 Olympics Games, Emmons reached the Olympic men’s 50m rifle three-position final for the third time. After the 9th shot in the final he again led his opponent - this time by over a point. But once again, his final shot was underwhelming, receiving 7.6 points, and relegating him to the bronze medal position.

Mathew Emmons and Katerina
Picture by 2008 Getty Images

The outcome

Emmons went on to compete at Rio 2016, his fourth Olympic Games. But this time he only ranked 19th in the 50m rifle three-position qualification round and he did not qualify for the following stage.

Although Matthew Emmons' Olympic experience was bitter in terms of competition, from a life perspective, the Olympics also gifted him a happy family.

After losing his gold medal at Athens 2004, Emmons sat in a beer garden near the shooting range, drowning his sorrows after one of the biggest blunders in Olympic history, when he felt a tap on the shoulder.

Czech shooter Katerina Kurkova (now named Katerina Emmons) and her father approached Emmons to sympathise with him and gave him a four-leaf-clover key chain to wish him good luck in the future. At that moment, a seed of love took root.

The two Olympians, both of whom won gold, silver, and bronze medals, got married in June 2007 and went on to have four children.

On 11 September 11, 2019, Matthew Emmons announced his retirement via Instagram, confirming that he would officially end his sports career in March 2020.

Looking back on his career, Matthew Emmons does not see his Olympic frustrations in a negative light. During an interview with USA Today, he said: "Had I not made that mistake, maybe I retire from shooting, maybe I don't marry Katy. Those failures, those mishaps, the things that I've learned in the process have made my life, my athletic career so much richer, so much more fulfilling than anything I could have done had I won those medals."

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