October 20, 2005
Ocilla--Most people have heard of child prodigies, children with exceptional, natural abilities in playing the piano, for example. But have you heard of a child prodigy in shooting sports? If not, then meet 14 year-old Ashli Pope, a wholesome, purpose-driven teenager with a strong sense of responsibility, and who could qualify as a prodigy with a shotgun.
"OK, guys," says science teacher Gary Young of Irwin County High School, as he sits two glass containers on a table, where three teenagers wait to complete a lab assignment.
Many teenagers don't particularly like sciences classes, much less like school, but Ashli likes does. "I like science because I want to be a veterinarian one day," says the shy ninth grader, wearing a lab apron and safety glasses.
You can usually find her at school, at church or at shooting practice. "I tried sports, played softball. I've done that and I just haven't been really good at it," says Ashli.
She's really good at bunker trap shooting, where a bank of 15 throwing machines sits out of the shooter's sight in a bunker, what some might describe as the hardest shotgun sport that exists.
Ashli trains in Colquitt County at one of the few International Olympic Bunker Trap shooting training facilities in the U.S. She shoots orange targets traveling 85 miles per hour. She doesn't know what direction the target will travel beforehand, just that she has about eight-tenths of a second to see it, to point and to pull the trigger.
"It's probably 99.9% mental," says Ashli. She has already won two gold medals in the state and U.S. Junior Olympics, catching the eyes of a shooting sports coach Mike Simpson.
He saw Ashli's talents displayed at a slower paced 4-H shooting competition, and he invited her to his special shooting range. She gave trap shooting a try and enjoyed the challenge, and decided to switch to the faster pace sport. "Got to get your stance right. You can't be nervous. You can't be stiff. That's my biggest problem. I'm always stiff," says Ashli.
The physical kick or re-coil of a 12 gauge shotgun fired 150 times a week would seem to loosen anyone, but it has its hazards. "When I started I came home with bruises all the time," says Ashli. Her right cheek would bleed after shooting because it touched the shotgun's stock. Every time she shot, the gun's kick would pull and eventually tear the skin on her face. A special pad installed on the gun's stock eliminated the bruising and bleeding.
Trap shooting comes at a price, a high price. "I've sacrificed Sunday afternoon coming to practice," says Ashli, as well as sacrificing two other days of the week, with her parents driving her about 360 miles a week to Simpson's shooting range to practice. In the height of her 15-week practice season, her parents drove her 2,700 miles, spent about $600 for three-thousand shotgun shells, not including the costs of traveling to various competitions.
"I had to go to work," says Ashli. She works as a farm hand on the family farm, driving a tractor her granddad once owned, and now she uses to move big, round bales of peanut hay. When Ashli practices, she tries to keep an open mind, something rather hard to accomplish in a world with so many distractions. "If you start thinking, you'll start messing up," says Ashli.
A shooter has very little time, fractions of a second, to correct a shooting mistake. The rules allow a second shot if the first one misses the same speeding target. "Got to have a blank mind and let go and let it happen," says coach Simpson. Something that sounds impossible. "An important key: trusting your eyes and reflexes," says Simpson.
Ashli hopes to get an invitation to the USA Junior Olympic Team that could come in January, 2006, the first of four huge steps to competing in the Olympics. "Then progress to the National Developmental team, the National team and the World Team," says Simpson listing the three remaining steps.
And, she'll have to shoot her way to a place on each team. "She needs to shoot 150 times a day," says Simpson, much more than she shoots now. "It takes a huge commitment for a kid to succeed at this," says Simpson.
Ashli has the commitment. "I see a future star," says Simpson. A future shooting star.