Ginny Thrasher walked into the Fandango Room at Barra Olympic Park carrying a bit of history Saturday evening. Some eight hours earlier, at age 19, she became the youngest woman ever to win the first gold medal of the Games.
Ranked 23rd in the world, she shocked the rather insular shooting world by winning the women’s 10-meter air rifle competition. It was a moment that surely would rattle any just-turned-adult, especially one at an athletic competition where the crowd can be counted by hand.
Instead it was a display of the near-perfect recitation of stock answers — don’t reveal anything, proud to represent your country, focus, focus, focus. The smile never went away, the bubble never burst.
“I knew if I made the final that anything could happen,” Thrasher said of her most improbable rise from middle-of-the-pack obscurity to the top of the medal stand. She was the sixth qualifier from a field of 51.
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After the first round of the final, she was third, then jumped to first in the second round and stayed near the top as the field narrowed one by one until she beat Li Du, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medalist, in the ninth round of the series.
Three years ago, Thrasher, then a student at West Springfield (Va.) High, was 43rd at the junior nationals. The year before, around the time of the London Olympics, she hadn’t even picked up the sport.
“I started shooting that August and I remember watching the Games and watching the men’s air rifle event,” Thrasher said. “I didn’t even know the rules or how it worked. I’m very thankful to be here four years later.”
Growing up, Thrasher had designs on being a figure skater. But by the time she entered high school that looked like a long-term nonstarter.
“I would go figure skate in the morning and then go to school and then go to rifle practice right after,” she said. “Figure skating for me was always a nice outlet. It was good exercise. It helped my balance. It was a good amount of social time. For me it was something that I loved but it was a hobby. I kind of dreamed about going to the Olympics but it was a very unrealistic dream.”
She learned to shoot from her father, who had served in the Air Force. Hunting was a family hobby. One of her first experiences was with her grandfather, father and two brothers.
“They didn’t think I could kill a deer,” Thrasher told the Washington Post earlier this year. “It was just a big rush of adrenaline. Things were happening very fast and all of a sudden, my aim was good and it was an exciting feeling.”
Whatever excitement and exuberance she felt that day clearly has been replaced by a calm and assured manner that seemed more coached than possible for a 19-year-old on the most important day of her athletic career. After clearing doping control at the shooting complex at Deodoro, she went to Copacabana where NBC got the interviews that come with a big rights-holder check.
“About halfway through the final I knew I was in contention for a medal and that was a great feeling obviously,” Thrasher said. “But I had to go and push that thought away and come back and focus on shooting. . . . I’m just very proud to start off the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in such a positive manner for my country.”
With questions cut off after 15 minutes, she held up her medal for some camera-phone photo ops and whisked out a back door.
She plans to give her parents and brothers a tour of the athletes village on Sunday before preparing for the three-position competition Thursday. Then it’s back to the U.S., and back to school at West Virginia University.
Follow John Cherwa on Twitter @jcherwa
Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this story.
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