WASHINGTON -- With his years on the football field and wrestling mat long behind him, Jerry Conway didn’t expect to find himself in another competitive sport following retirement from the Army.
Once an avid runner, two serious knee surgeries meant he could no longer jog regularly or do much physical activity without enduring chronic pain.
Then in 2015 he stumbled upon competitive trapshooting, where participants fire at clay targets from five different stations with each competitor blasting 25 shotgun shells per round of trap. A hobby soon became a bit of an obsession, and he later joined the Fairfax Rod and Gun Club in Manassas, Virginia, to hone his skills.
“It was just like the fire in the belly relit,” Conway said. “And this is something to feed that competitive spirit to challenge myself.”
Individuals and squads compete in the Amateur Trapshooting Association throughout the United States. While attending amateur trapshooting competitions the retired lieutenant colonel saw shooters from a variety of backgrounds including teenagers and senior citizens. One of the sport’s best competitors, Kay Ohye, is an All-American still competing in his 80s.
“The thing I tell people that is unique about [trapshooting] over anything I've ever done before is it's the most diverse group that I've ever seen,” Conway said. “It's kids, veterans, law enforcement, firemen, plumbers, electricians, doctors, lawyers … it's just an extremely diverse group.”
Now 53, he recently placed first at the Pennsylvania State Trapshoot from June 13-21, winning the singles championship in a shoot-off within his category.
Conway, a human resources personnel policy integrator for the Army Staff at the Pentagon, travels to six states to compete in amateur shooting contests. His goal: to one day attend The Grand American World Trapshooting Championships in Sparta, Illinois, the nation’s top amateur competitive trapshooting event of its kind.
“You literally just show up,” said Conway, who returned to Pennsylvania last weekend to take part in the PA Grand. “You have to perform, but everybody's got an equal opportunity.”
Conway recalled how easy it was to hit targets in basic training at Fort Benning more than 30 years ago. Then a young college student, he had just quit playing football. He wanted something more challenging as he began classes at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He enlisted in the Iowa National Guard as an infantry Soldier, eventually joining Army ROTC and commissioning as an officer.
He remembered how firing his M-16 rifle came naturally to him at the time, but did not actively pursue competitive shooting of any kind.
After spending 20 years in the Army as a human resources officer, he retired in 2009. After becoming acclimated to the sport, he found trapshooting filled a void in his life.
Conway said shooters can achieve success in the sport by overcoming mental hurdles.
“You're competing with your brain,” he said. “[Trapshooting] is … mostly mental. You have to have a trap gun that fits properly and you got to master the fundamentals, but once you get all that down, it’s 95 percent mental.”
Staying hydrated and proper physical fitness can also boost performance, Conway said. Five years of competing in smaller amateur shoots gave the Army vet confidence to attempt larger competitions.
At the Pennsylvania State Trapshoot last month, Conway faced hundreds of competitors from across the country. In an early event, Conway finished in third place in his class and continued to post consistently good scores throughout the week.
In the championship 200 singles event, Conway found the odds stacked against him shooting a 98 in the first 100 targets. He needed to score a perfect 100 on the next round to have a chance. Conway did just that with an overall 198 and an opportunity for an elimination shoot-off for the championship in his class category. In the shoot-off, competitors participate in elimination rounds with 25 shots each and the competitor with the highest score wins. In a tie, shooters continue firing for as many rounds as needed to determine a winner.
But before the shoot-off could begin, extreme weather delayed it for two hours and made visibility difficult. In the first round, both Conway and veteran trapshooter Michael Rice didn’t miss and posted 25 scores. In round two, both competitors again scored 25. In the third, Rice missed one shot each on the second and fourth posts. Conway didn’t miss, clinching the victory and a first-place finish.
Between his final round in the championship and the shoot-off rounds, Conway had hit 175 consecutive shots.
“We went into the final post and I shot the first one, second one, and third one and I told myself, ‘OK, if you get the next one, it's over,’” he said.
Conway said the sport can be costly. A dependable competition shotgun carries a price tag between $5,000 to $25,000, and competitors must pay for each competitive shot they fire as well as travel and lodging costs.
But the sport bears ample opportunities for success, Conway said, provided competitors are willing to practice and continually advance their skills.
He gradually improved in his accuracy in each of the five years he has competed, Conway said. Conway was mentored by former George Mason University Trap and Skeet Club coach Gary Olin and All-American Danny Sirk. Conway has also taken clinics with three of the sport’s top All-American competitors.
Conway started competing in doubles shooting [where two targets exit the trap house simultaneously] three years ago, initially starting with a 69% accuracy rate and said he has now upped that to about 88%. During the PA Grand in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, July 3-5, Conway scored a 93% in doubles and got into another shoot-off with three competitors to finish as class runner-up. Conway won the shoot-off after missing once.
Now Conway has made the sport a family affair and has taken his family trapshooting. His son will attend George Mason University in the fall and hopes to make its trap and skeet club team. While Conway wonders what could have been had he discovered the sport earlier in life, he remains grateful for the opportunity to compete at an older age.
“I'm just trying to get a little bit better every year,” Conway said.