By Michael Molinaro, U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Public Affairs July 24, 2012
(Fourth in a six-part series featuring U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Soldiers headed to the Olympics)
FORT BENNING, Ga. (July 24, 2012) -- One was labeled a prodigy after winning the world championship at the age of 16. The other was already a two-time Olympian and had won every match except for the big one.
Sgt. Vincent Hancock and Sgt. Glenn Eller showed up at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as the favorites to win and neither disappointed. The two U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Soldiers brought home gold medals, set Olympic records, and secured their place in Olympic lore forever.
Olympic glory quickly followed the two young Soldiers everywhere they went. Autograph seekers, talk shows, media and friends all hounded the twosome for an opportunity to meet with the new stars.
"I went out one night in Beijing and found myself hanging out all night with Michael Phelps," said Eller. "It was his last night there. Here I am sitting next to him like we were best friends, smoking cigars and talking. I thought to myself, 'Every person in the world wants to be where I am right now.' It was surreal."
Eller and Hancock hit the road after the Olympics, making hometown stops, visiting schools throughout the country, and being honored guests at the White House, parades, and professional sporting events.
"It was a lot busier than I expected," Eller said. "It was great to meet all of the people we met and do the things we did, but besides one match I probably didn't fire my gun for several months."
The view from the top of the mountain was all that they hoped it would be, both admitted. Hancock won his second World Championship in 2009, proclaiming to the world that this sport was his and he wasn't going anywhere for a long time.
As the glory faded from the Olympics, so did the Soldiers' hunger to be great. They both had reached the pinnacle at such a young age and admittedly were still riding the high while everybody else was training hard.
In 2010, the Soldiers' journeys began taking separate paths. Hancock, who shoots Men's Skeet and won gold at 19 years of age, and his wife welcomed a baby girl into the world. Now a father, Hancock had a new outlook on life.
"Having kids turned my life upside down in such a good way," said Hancock. "It made me become a more selfless person. It helped me to realize that I am not number one -- my wife and my kids are."
For Eller, a double trap shooter from Katy, Texas, he fell flat in his sport for the first time. An Olympian at the age of 18, he is one of a handful of shotgun shooters in the history of the sport to have won gold medals at the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup and World Cup Final. Eller found himself off the U.S. World team, making him ineligible to compete in World Cups and the World Championships for the first time ever.
"After the gold medal, I had nowhere to go but down," Eller said. "Being left off the world team was very humbling. I knew I would have to work my butt off to make a fourth Olympics."
Hancock didn't do much better in 2011. He had his worst year on the range, missing out on medaling at a World Cup for the first time in five years. He was looking for answers and couldn't find them. Hancock said he thought that perhaps his shooting career was over.
"I already accomplished my goal, my dream, so I just rode the high and after winning the world championship in 2009 I hit bottom," he said.
"That's when my wife sat me down and said she didn't want me to do this anymore if I was just going to be a mess from not shooting well. We talked about it, we prayed about it, and I realized that this is my passion. I love to compete, I love to shoot every day, and I want to go do it again."
While Hancock was deciding on his future, Eller had already found a renewed commitment to the sport that had given him everything. He shot his way on to the world team and turned it on from there. He won a gold medal at the Pan American Games, took home a bronze at the World Championships, and then won the first leg of the Olympic Trials, firmly putting him back in the mix to make the Olympic team again.
"Without the support of my family and the Army, I wouldn't be headed to London," Eller said. "My family is there for me no matter what. The Army gives us every resource we need to get the job done. We have a strong team on our back. The entire unit supports each other and they definitely helped me get through a rough patch."
In May, Hancock and Eller went to the final match of the Olympic Trials in first place in their respective disciplines. Hancock blew away the field, displaying the tenacity and mental fortitude that has been his disposition throughout his career. Eller also held on, thwarting a challenge by USAMU teammate Sgt. Jeff Holguin. Like true champions, they both dug themselves out of their post-Olympic funk and secured a ticket for the trip to London.
"The Olympics are unlike anything else that you'll ever go to," Hancock said. "Having the opportunity to be on that stage is typically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I am stoked to go again."
Both Soldiers are excited about the opportunity to defend their medals on the world stage and represent their country and the Army to the world. No one has ever won two gold medals in either Men's Skeet or Double Trap, a factor that both said is very motivating.
"It's a not just me and my family that I am competing for," said Hancock. "Knowing that my brother and other service members are overseas rooting for me and it gives them a sense of pride when they see one of us medal is very special."
Besides the fact that they are defending their gold's, both are going into the games with compelling storylines. Eller will compete against and alongside Staff Sgt. Josh Richmond in double trap. He said he will guide Richmond through his first Olympic Games yet still try to best him.
"There is enough room on the awards podium for the both of us," Eller said.
Hancock will be making his last appearance in the Olympics as a Soldier. He has decided to leave the Army once his current enlistment expires and start a shooting academy in his native Georgia.
"The Army has been the best experience of my life," said Hancock. "Every member of the U.S. Army has helped me get to where I am. That's who I am representing. The Soldier skills instilled in me from basic training until now allowed me to overcome the past few years and get me back to where I want to be."