Former Racer rifle shooter describes path to Olympics

Photo courtesy of Pat Pitney Pat Pitney rides to the North Pole as a torchbearer for the U.S. before the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Photo courtesy of Pat Pitney Pat Pitney rides to the North Pole as a torchbearer for the U.S. before the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Photo courtesy of Pat Pitney
Pat Pitney rides to the North Pole as a torchbearer for the U.S. before the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

She was the last competitor to finish. It was not easy, but she knew she won before she walked off the line.

Pat Spurgin (now Pitney due to marriage) did not make it all the way to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics to lose.

She aimed only to be the best.

“It wasn’t an easy match for me,” Pitney said. “I had to work pretty hard and keep my emotions down and my heart rate down. I had a high expectation, and anything less than winning would have been bad.”

And just like that, after years of training and pushing herself to be the best, Pitney won the gold medal in air rifle at only 18 years old.

It was the first year the competition was open to women, and to this day she is the only American to ever take home gold in the event.

Her success dates back to her time at the Yellowstone Junior Rifle Club in her hometown of Billings, Mont., where she competed against her older siblings.

She said she got involved because her family tended to do things together.

“It was just something we did on Friday nights as a family activity,” Pitney said.

Though she started shooting at 9 years old, she did not really focus on the sport until she was 11.

She said while her family has been supportive of all her endeavors, they were also her toughest competition.

“Having older brothers and sisters was the initial push because I always stacked myself up against how they were doing,” Pitney said. “My brother really showed me the way of what could be achieved in the sport. He really led the way of what was possible in the sport and set the standard.”

Still, without the junior rifle club, Pitney said she would probably not have gotten the foundation she needed to become such a success.

Her coach and role model, Ralph Saunders, played a large role in Pitney’s career. Saunders introduced her to former Olympic gold medalists, allowing her to make connections with people who wanted to see fellow rifle shooters do well.

Perhaps that is why when asked to write down her goal, Pitney said an Olympic gold.

“If you’re dealing with people who have gone to the Olympics and they’ve won gold medals, you don’t set your mind on just going,” she said. “You set your mind on gold medals.”

Pitney would have to wait to achieve her dream, but not for long. As she grew older, rifle became her life, and took precedent over everything else.

While most teenagers were working toward a high school degree, Pitney was touring the nation.

She actually stopped taking classes, taking night classes when she could.

After coming home from a trip to Europe, she went to Georgia to train for the PanAmerican Games rather than attending her own graduation.

It paid off, as she won four gold medals there. She said anything less would have been a letdown.

“If I was winning in the United States, I better be winning at the PanAmerican Games,” Pitney said. “It put my name in the mix of who to expect at the Olympics.”

Later that year, Pitney enrolled at Murray State.

By that time, she knew she would be competing in Los Angeles.

She said the decision to go to college was easy. There was no opportunity to support herself from money earned through sponsorships, plus college rifle provides the best training environment.

“In the NCAA rifle programs, you’re competing against the very best people from 18-23 in every match,” Pitney said. “There wasn’t a better place to be to train. One of the big reasons I picked Murray was I got a key to the range, so my training was on my own terms and I could do it whenever I wanted.”

And train she did. If she wasn’t in class or on the road to competition, Pitney was at the range.

“I by far practiced more in that year than anybody around,” she said.

Aside from her Olympic gold that year, Pitney was named the OVC Athlete of the Year. Her accolades didn’t end there, though.

Pitney went on to be named to eight All-American teams, won two individual national collegiate titles and two team national collegiate titles.

Shortly after, she was inducted into the Murray State Hall of Fame, and the rifle range was named after her.

Last year, she was inducted into the USA Shooting Hall of Fame, which she said was an honor.

“My shooting career was really short relative to shooters around,” Pitney said. “Most people are in the sport 15-20 years. I got out of the sport before most people ever get on the national team.”

She said at the time, her career did not seem short because it was all-consuming for her.

And though she missed winning, her focus in life changed after she married and had children.

“Once I had a family, it’s no longer your own life,” she said. “It’s your kid’s life. What is important to you individually, it’s not that important in the family picture. I did miss winning. I missed being the very best.”

Now, as the vice chancellor of administration for University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Pitney said she is still much the same person she used to be.

She said she still works hard, but she works differently.

Looking back, she would only tell herself one thing.

“Enjoy it now because your time will be short,” Pitney said. “Put the most into it and get the most out of it. In the grand scheme of a lifetime, it’s very short.”


Story by Ryan Richardson, Sports Editor

1 Comment on "Former Racer rifle shooter describes path to Olympics"

  1. Pat you were a great teammate and an inspiration to dream big and work hard. I'm so proud to be your friend.

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