COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.
Thousands of American boys and girls dream, at some time in their lives, of competing in the Olympics and wearing the red, white, and blue. For a very few, the idea isn't only to compete but to win. The Monitor is following one of these athletes who aspires to greatness, shooting-team candidate Beki Snyder of Fruita, Colo. First in a series.
It's late afternoon at the United States Olympic Training Center here, and all is quiet, finally, inside the $2.7 million shooting range. It's eerie for a place so alive with noise so much of the time to be silent.
Beki Snyder is one of America's prime hopes to medal in shooting - 10-meter air pistol and 25-meter sport pistol - at the coming Olympics in Sydney, Australia, beginning Sept. 15. She's finished with practice, for now. She stares down at the targets and thinks back, when asked, on how it was when she first started competing about a decade ago.
She admits that shooting is typically thought of as the province of males:
"The boys were really friendly to me - until I started beating them."
Then, she says, a really funny thing happened: "I started beating them a lot." Ms. Snyder flashes a smile as wide as the outdoors and as tall as Pikes Peak. In another place and another time, she might have been Annie Oakley, the no-nonsense queen of the gun.
But, of course, carving out a frontier life with a rifle in hand has almost nothing in common with shooting Olympic style. They are barely related, at best.
Still, in the current political environment, anything involving guns somehow demands defending. Snyder sees no problem with gun regulation: "It's like legislating bike helmets. It's still legal to ride. So if you have to wait for a background check before you can buy a gun, so what? You have to have a license to drive a car, and a gun can be as damaging as a car."
Like many Olympic sports - equestrian, archery, badminton, fencing, judo, tae kwon do - competitive shooting isn't well known in this country. Snyder, a 1994 graduate of Fruita (Colo.) Monument High School, understands that, but says, "It's such a large part of our heritage. If you talk to 20 people, every one of them will know someone who shoots."
Conversely, she says that if someone is involved in, say, synchronized swimming, the listener says, " 'Yeah, well, I was in a swimming pool once.' It's not the same."
Snyder was to shooting born. Her father, Raleigh, has long been involved in conventional, low-level pistol shooting and coaching. When Beki was little, she would go with her dad to competitions. "It was fun," she says. "There were plenty of lizards to chase."
Soon she was trying her hand. "I improved rather quickly," she says, and suspects that it was because she had "no preconceived twitches, jerks, or concepts." Raleigh bought his daughter her first gun, a .22-caliber match rifle, for $600, when she was 16 years old.
By now, her long-running interest in gymnastics had waned. Between the ages of 5 and 12, she worked out four times a week, three hours a session, on the balance beam and uneven bars, as well as in the vault and floor exercise.
But, unlike many extravagant self-appraisals by athletes, Snyder is candid about her gymnastics abilities: "In the scheme of things, I was pretty mediocre." The mediocrity evidenced itself when Beki started venturing beyond the local area and promptly discovered big-city girls from Denver could thrash her routinely.
Mr. Snyder says he was pleased when she quit that sport "because you have to do dangerous things in order to win." Her coaches "took her too far, too fast."
And while boys rather than girls generally gravitate to shooting, Mr. Snyder says that "girls have certain advantages. The ability to concentrate intensely comes earlier, they grow faster earlier, they don't lack coordination, and they have fine muscle control." The only thing keeping girls and women from the sport, he says, is "the violence that is always attached to it."
While progress was rapid for Beki between 1992 and 1994, the path to new highs - just like the stock market - isn't a steady lineup. In 1994, she found herself in a lull, almost becalmed. But because of her ability, and her perseverance, she was allowed to move into the Olympic training facility here in 1995, when she was 18.
It's not life in high cotton, but it is adequate. She is provided with a dorm room and bathroom down the hall. She can eat as much as she wants as often as she wants between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. There are rules, but they are not onerous. All this is free, plus she gets $100 a month.
Her gratitude is unbridled: "It's such a privilege to be here. There is no way I could have reached this level without everything they have done here with me."
This level includes making the women's Olympic team that competed in Atlanta in 1996, a total surprise to the shooting fraternity for an unknown born in Canada and raised in the relative obscurity of Colorado's western slope.
She performed dreadfully, finishing 30th in the air pistol among some 50 competitors. Her head still shakes in dismay: "I didn't have the maturity, and I didn't have the skills."
*Next: Snyder tries to make the US Olympic shooting team later this month in a competition in Atlanta.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society