Today was a win for naturalized citizens, Florida and all those 40-somethings as Emil Milev and Enkelejda Shehaj punched their tickets to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil later this summer. Milev and Shehaj’s Olympic nominations in the Men’s Rapid Fire and Women’s Sport pistol events concludes the Olympic Team Trials for Smallbore (.22 caliber) taking place at the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) in Fort Benning, Georgia. Jay Shi (Phoenix, Arizona), Virginia Thrasher (Springfield, Virginia) and David Higgins (San Clemente, California) earned their Olympic Team spots earlier in the week. Read that full recap here.
These Trials consisted of three straight days of competition for each event, featuring three Qualifiers and three separate Finals. Each day’s qualifying scores and points from the event Finals were added to each competitor’s score to get a cumulative total.
Milev (Temple Terrace, Florida) and Shehaj (Naples, Florida) had combined to compete in seven previous Olympic Games. Before competing for Team USA in 2012, Milev had competed in four previous Olympic Games for Bulgaria and was the Olympic silver medalist at the Games in Atlanta. He also finished fourth in Sydney and ninth in Athens. Milev moved his family to the U.S. in 2004 and became a citizen in 2009. He currently works as a PE Teacher at B.T. Washington Elementary in Tampa.
Shehaj competed for Albania in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games finishing as high as 14th in Barcelona. She came to the United States in 2009 and became a citizen in 2012. The 47-year-old is an owner of a Mediterranean restaurant aptly named Olympia Dining & Sports Bar. She becomes just the third woman ever to go 20+ years between Olympic appearances.
Jay Shi (Phoenix, Arizona) who won the other pistol nomination in Men’s Free Pistol, was also born outside the United States having moved here from China after suffering an eye injury when he was 10 years old.
The 47-year-old Milev becomes the second U.S. Olympic shooter ever to qualify for six Games, behind William McMillan, who appeared at every Games but one from 1952-1976. McMillan represented the U.S. at all six of his Olympic appearances and won gold in 1960.
Milev beat four other competitors to earn his ticket to Brazil and will join his 2012 Olympic teammate Keith Sanderson (Colorado Springs, Colorado), who earned his way on to the Olympic Team in 2015 based on strong international results.
Milev opened the qualifier by scoring 585 on Wednesday to hold a six-point advantage over Alexander Chichkov. He padded that lead on Thursday, posting a 587 for an aggregate of 1,184, 17 points up on Chichkov. In addition, Milev’s win in Thursday’s final was only one hit shy of matching the finals world record of 35 hits.
With his sixth Olympic team selection securely in hand, Milev wrapped up his trials competition with a flourish, surpassing the world record of 35 hits in a final to score 37, serving notice that he aiming for a podium finish in Rio. He had a score of 589 today and closed out with an aggregate score of 1,779.
“This match went better than I expected. I felt like I had trained enough, but I didn’t expect some of the high scores I was putting up, so that helps me feel good about the upcoming Olympics. Every Games is such a memorable experience. I could keep going to the Games forever! It’s the place to be!”
Finishing second was USAMU Staff Sergeant Brad Balsley (Uniontown, Pennsylvania), the reigning Pan American Games Champion. Finishing one-point behind in third is Milev’s training partner Alexander Chichkov (Temple Terrace, Florida).
The most intense competition of these Olympic Team Trials came on the final day and final event: Women’s Sport Pistol. Over the past two days of qualification, Shehaj had led the Women’s Sport Pistol field by a small margin – five points the first day and then six points the second. By the third and final day of competition, her lead had disappeared as 2012 Olympian Sandra Uptagrafft (Phenix City, Alabama) had surged ahead in Qualification, shooting a world-class score of 583 to place her one point ahead of Shehaj prior to the Finals. 2008 Olympian Brenda Silva (Snowflake, Arizona) was also within reach of an Olympic slot as she sat just a few points behind Shehaj following Qualification.
Not only would the lone spot in Women’s Sport Pistol for the U.S. be decided in the last Final of the entire competition, it would be decided by the last shot. Once in the Final, three rounds of shoot-offs would determine who would go to the “gold-medal” and “bronze-medal” matches. Though these matches are titled as such, in this Olympic Team Trials, the first-place finisher in the Finals would win eight additional points, second place seven, third six and so on – not necessarily the medal overall. When Uptagrafft won her “bronze-medal match,” she had to wait to see how Shehaj would finish. The way this selection was set up and how the points were awarded, if Shehaj won her “gold-medal match,” she won the Olympic slot outright. If she lost after Uptagrafft had already earned bronze, the both of them would be tied on cumulative points, and the tie-breaker of the aggregate of center shots (shots within a ring inside the 10-ring of the target) would determine the winner. If it came to that, Uptagrafft would win, 56-46.
Shehaj would face Nathalie Granados (New York, New York) in the “gold-medal match.” The pair would continue to tie each other round after round, until Shehaj finally bested Granados on the final shot on the final target to win the match, along with the Olympic Team slot.
“I can’t believe it came down to the last shot!” said Shehaj. “It was a three-day competition, but it came down to one shot! I kind of knew I was going to have to make first place today to do anything. I knew I was close with Sandra and Brenda and that gave me the determination to make sure it worked out. It’s a dream come true to make Team USA. I wanted to make one more Olympics before I retired. Hopefully something good will happen at this one. It’s been three long days and I don’t know if it has set in what just happened. Those emotions might still be coming!”
Uptagrafft finished in second place overall and Silva finished in third place. Both women are expected to compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Airgun in Camp Perry, Ohio June 3-5.
The other featured match was Men’s Three-Position Rifle, which saw USAMU Staff Sergeant George Norton (Salina, Kansas) earn top marks over Dempster Christenson (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and Ryan Anderson (Wasilla, Alaska). Norton was down eight points to Christenson after day one but big qualification scores the next two days ultimately earned him a 10-point win in the end. The U.S. has just one quota in Men’s Three-Position Rifle event that has already been claimed by three-time Olympic medalist Matt Emmons (Browns Mills, New Jersey) based on his international performances in 2015. Norton can only secure an Olympic Team nomination now by either winning one of the two available spots in Men’s Air Rifle or hope Emmons earns a double start by winning a position in Air Rifle as well. The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Airgun will take place June 3-5 in Camp Perry, Ohio.
NOTE: All Olympic Team Nominations are subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee.