By Michelle Lunato, USAMU Public Affairs Chief
FORT BENNING, Ga. - Everyone wants to be good at something. So people try all kinds of things in their youth to discover it. It may take years to find that one thing that they are truly passionate about. For some unfortunate others, they may never find it. For one U.S. Army Soldier, he found his passion at 14 years old, and he's been doing it ever since.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael McPhail fired off his first rifle shot at a small gun club in his hometown of Darlington, Wisconsin. Alongside his 15-year-old cousin, the Soldier who is now member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit's (USAMU) International Rifle Team, learned some basic fundamentals.
Several days of the week, the two boys would run home from school and head to the range, said McPhail. "It was him and I, and a bunch of 50-year-old guys."
From the very start, that future Soldier and Olympian showed some promise in his marksmanship skills, especially in the prone position matches. So naturally, he just kept coming back, explained McPhail. "That's really as simple as it was. I was just good at it right away, and I enjoyed it because I could win. So I kept going."
In fact, McPhail became so good at prone position rifle that he continued to do it all through high school and college. And it was at that collegiate level where he drew the attention of some Soldiers from the USAMU. His quick conversation with the Soldiers during a Camp Perry, Ohio match seemed insignificant for the Wisconsin native who had never really considered the Army as a career path. But their casual invitation to check out the opportunity to shoot, while wearing the uniform, stuck with him, said McPhail. "They planted a seed, and it festered there for eight or nine months...so I joined the Army by chance."
Now, with 14 years of service, the Fort Benning, Georgia Soldier says it has been an honor, not a sacrifice, to wear the uniform for so many years. "It was the best decision I have ever made." Not only was it a good decision, it was one that he has no regrets on. "It's a decision I made and would make 10 times over and never look back. So I really don't think I had to sacrifice anything. I think I made one decision and was gifted a lot of things by being here."
As a member of the USAMU, McPhail says he's been blessed to be able to not only represent the Army, but also the USA, at international matches in locations as far as Germany, Serbia and Spain. And in those events, he's taken home a number of Men's Prone Rifle event Bronze, Silver and Gold Medals too. Just to name a few, McPhail has claimed Gold Medals in Prone Rifle in the 2015 World Cup at Fort Benning, the 2015 World Cup in Munich, and the 2010 World Cup in Serbia. He's also claimed Silver Medals in Prone Rifle in the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, the 2014 World Championships in Spain and the 2013 World Cup in Korea.
Of course, like all athletes on the international rifle circuit, McPhail had his sights set on the Olympics. He hit those targets center mass not just once, but twice, when he made both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Teams for his proven accuracy in Men's Prone Rifle.
His two Olympic experiences couldn't be more different though, explained McPhail.
In London (2012), the Soldier said he was thought to have a good chance to medal, but not necessarily win the Gold. And being his first Olympics, everything was overwhelming and exhilarating.
"It was very exciting. The rush I got from Opening Ceremonies was...I can't really describe it," said McPhail with a smile. "You're heart is beating out of your chest. The stadium is shaking; it was like an earthquake. And that was all cool," said the Soldier who placed 9th on the international stage, just one spot, or three-tenths of a point, out of the finals that were his last chance to medal at the games.
By the 2016 Olympics, everything had changed though. "Rio was a little bit different. Rio was like, what color is he going to win, and by how much? And...it just didn't happen."
With all of the hype and expectation, the Rio Olympics, especially as a second time Olympian, was a mission. "We were going down there to do a job," said McPhail.
Unfortunately, the mission did not go as planned, and its something the Soldier said he would never forget. "To this day, Rio still kind of haunts me...it's just the not knowing," said McPhail with a distant look. "Normally you know when you are not shooting well, and I had no idea. I don't even know where I finished (it was 19th)....I got done and was like, 'Well, it didn't happen.' It was disappointing-it haunts me."
Learning to deal with defeat is something every athlete must master, regardless of the sport. That fact does not make it a simple task though.
With thousands of competitions completed, the Soldier has learned that he can still be a bit more emotional than he needs to be. "It's showed me that I can deal with defeat. Everyone is good when they win, and I am no different. When I win, it's pretty easy," said the two-time Olympian.
So the loss in Rio was tough, but McPhail got restored a little when he claimed the Gold about a month later in the Men's Prone event at the 2016 World Cup Finals in Italy. Being so close to the Olympics though, it was a bittersweet win said the Wisconsin native. "It all came together then. It's just disappointing it didn't work out a month prior."
That's just the way competition is though, sometimes you win and sometimes you don't, said McPhail. So the Soldier started back to some heavy training. Then, a 2017 Olympic Committee decision changed the entire training plan for the two-time Olympian. In efforts to keep gender equality on the international stage, the Committee dropped 50-Meter Men's Prone from the both the Olympics Games and the World Cup Circuit, as well as a few other events.
The problem was, Prone was the event that young 14-year-old boy learned to love. Prone was the exact match he had been perfecting for years. Prone was the event he was claiming medals at, and now, it was gone. The seasoned Soldier said he can't lie-that was painful. "Just like that, my event went away. It's tough...When you go to bed at night and you were one of the best people in the world at something. Then you wake up in the next day, and you are now average. It was tough, and it still is."
Like any true athlete and dedicated Soldier, McPhail took his blow, but got right back up. He just needed to adjust his training plan, a lot. Instead of competing in Prone, he would now have to train to compete in the Men's 3-Position (3P) Rifle Event. That meant, he could still shoot prone, but he also had to shoot kneeling and standing as well. In other words, instead of shooting for 50 minutes in the prone position, he had to learn how to compete in all three positions for two hours and 45 minutes. Basically, I had to go from a sprint to a marathon, said McPhail.
The dramatic change in events obviously required a drastic change in training plans, explained McPhail. "When I was shooting prone, I could do everything I wanted to do in a training day. Now with shooting 3P, I struggle to do everything I need to. It's a different mentality."
Shooting 3P was not completely new to McPhail. In fact, he had claimed a few medals in it over the years, such as the Bronze at the 2008 National Championships, the Silver at the 2009 National Championships and the Gold at the Grand Prix of Spain. However, 3P was not his main event. It was not the event he owned as much as prone. So the transition to just 3P is frustrating to say the least, admitted the Soldier. "I would routinely shoot above the World Record score [in Prone], so there was just not a ton to do, but with 3P, there is a whole lot more going on."
With so many new factors to work on, getting world-class scores are not as consistent for McPhail as they were in Prone. It all seems to be boiling down to the standing position though, he explained. "Standing is by far my hardest position." That struggle for someone who was on top of his game for so many years, is hard to swallow. But, he said he's taking in stride. "It's rare for me to not be in the top 10 after coming out of slings (after shooting in both the prone and kneeling positions). Then with standing, we just see where we end up."
The slow transition and average scores are difficult for the seasoned, successful competitor. "It's hard and tough. Things are just not coming together as quickly as I want them too," admitted McPhail. "I am not a real patient guy. But, it is progressing."
When the training gets frustrating, or he doesn't do as well as he wants in a 3P match, the Soldier said he tries to pull from those past lessons in defeat. He also has to dig deep and tell that inner young boy who first started shooting for himself, that it's not all about him anymore.
With the USAMU, Army and Team USA logos all on his back for several years, McPhail has learned that competing comes with an added layer of obligation. "The responsibility is more about how you compete than what you accomplish, and being that someone people can look up to."
As new Soldiers and young new athletes hit the competitive rifle circuit, McPhail said he is still enjoying the competitive sport. "The new kids help keep it fresh and fun and things like that, but man...they are good."
And as a senior noncommissioned officer in the unit, and a mentor to a number of junior civilian athletes, McPhail knows he has to be the example, even on those hard days. "They need to see how to work. I think that's important," explained the Soldier. "They are a big reason why I am still here, still doing this. They need to see how to work, and how to work like a champion."
The 36-year-old, two-time Prone Olympian said there's another reason for not throwing in the towel just yet, and those two reasons are his 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. "I just didn't want them to see their dad quit at anything."
With the perspective of a father now, he anticipates that one day his children will probably want to quit something one day. And when that day comes, he needed to be able to look them in the face knowing he did all he could to roll with the life's changes, to tell them he never quit when it got hard. "I didn't see how I could say, 'No that's not OK,' if I would have done it too."
So frustration and all, McPhail is moving forward with his 3P-training plan. Day by day, and step by step, he's hammering away at perfecting both the kneeling and standing positions as much as he did the prone position for all those years. And even though the event has changed, McPhail's original competitive goal to see how good he could be, is still the same. In fact, it's like of like he's that 14-year-old boy again, laughed McPhail. "Shoot man. I am kind of back to the start."
When asked if his goals include the 2020 Olympics in Tokoyo, the Soldier says it's too early for that talk. "I think looking past what you have right in front of you is not a good idea."
Naturally, the two-time Olympian has thought about it, just like any other serious athlete, but they are just fleeting thoughts at this point. "I've thought a little bit about how I want it to all play out, but not really. We have a lot of work yet to do," said the experienced competitor and father who knows he has many eyes upon him.
Meanwhile, that young Wisconsin boy with a rifle still shines in the eyes of the Soldier, the father and the experienced competitor.
"Life has changed a lot, but not shooting. My skill has gone up, but I am pretty much still that fiery 14-year-old who started and gets upset when things don't go his way. I mean, I just am. It's 20 years later, so it's probably not going to change. That's just me."