TOKYO — Will Shaner reacted like someone who could not wrap his head around the idea he’d won a gold medal.
There were no yells, no fistpumps, no jumping, as Shaner captured U.S. shooting’s first-ever gold medal in the men’s 10 meter air rifle. Hardly a wave, even. If he was smiling, you couldn’t tell, as a massive Nike Team USA mask covered almost his entire face.
“Still trying to believe it,” he said afterward. “It’s been a long time, though, growing up in the sport, progressing. To finally have (the gold medal), it’s amazing.”
Shaner placed third in qualifying for the eight-man final Sunday at Asaka Shooting Range. The final, however, is where he shined – his mark of 105.8 in the final’s first competition stage placed him first, and he never looked back.
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He never looked anywhere than straight ahead, really. And the competitors were all looking up as he set an Olympic record of 251.6 – 1.2 shy of the world record. He scored 10.5 or above on 13 of his 24 shots in the final.
“It’s amazing. Yesterday, a little bit of a slow start for everyone,” he said, as Team USA went without a medal on the first day of competition for the first time in nearly 50 years. “Today, to (help) finally get it moving, it’s amazing. It’s really an honor.”
China’s Lihao Sheng (250.9) and Haoran Yang (229.4) finished with silver and bronze, respectively. Shaner, who began shooting at age 8 and won his first international competition at 14, became the second-youngest men’s 10-meter air rifle Olympic champion; Zhu Qinan was 19 when he won gold during the 2004 Athens Games.
American Lucas Kozeniesky, a contender who finished second in qualifying, came in sixth with a final score of 165.0.
Shaner’s performance was practically a repeat of his gold performance at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in Croatia last month.
“I just did the same thing as I did there and just worked out the problems I had and just knew that it was going to get me to where I wanted to be,” the Colorado native said.
The “problems” were nerves, he said. Whatever jitters he felt were hardly noticeable.
“(Croatia) kind of gave me the confidence to know that it’s possible. I just needed to focus on what I’m doing.”
And what he was doing involved lots of bulls-eyes. He led the final start to finish, and USA Shooting national rifle coach Dan Durben knew from the beginning of the round that Shaner had gold in his future.
“Pretty confident, just knowing him, that he’d be able keep that going the whole way,” he told USA TODAY Sports.
Durben coached a gold medalist in the women’s 10-meter air rifle (Nancy Johnson) during his stint as Olympic coach at the 2000 Sydney Games. Having another first 21 years later was “a long time” coming.
“Now that’s exciting,” Durben said. “It’s been a (while) since our men’s rifle team has been this competitive and it’s been really exciting over the last year to see how both he and Lucas, and our women, have really come up strong.”
One of the women fueling Durben’s excitement is Mary Tucker, who has won the past two NCAA championships and is Shaner’s teammate at Kentucky – he’s finished in second, behind her at the competitions.
But Tucker stumbled and finished sixth during her final Saturday, and now Shaner is the one with gold.
Shaner’s other training partner, Kozeniesky, said he saw the Shaner who won in Croatia in the final round hall on Sunday.
Once Kozeniesky was eliminated, “I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s at least going to win, or he’s going to fight really hard to maintain his spot,’” Kozeniesky said. “And that’s what he did.”
That’s how Shaner always comports himself, Kozeniesky said – “an inherent part of who he is.”
“He’s just a competitor,” he said. “He’s just somebody who likes to compete. He understands when to turn it on.”
In that case, Shaner has been on for the last month — and is a college kid with a gold medal.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Shaner sets Olympic record to win gold in men's 10m air rifle