WHEN Gary Alexander first introduced his son Jack to shooting with an air rifle and small homemade targets in the back garden of their Broad Hinton home, he couldn’t have known it might one day have cost him a place at the Commonwealth Games.
Both father and son were in the running for the Northern Irish full bore rifle shooting squad, but the selectors have plumped for youth over experience for July’s Games in Glasgow.
Jack, now 21, is likely to be the youngest competitor in the entire competition and takes one of only two available spaces in the Northern Irish squad.
“I was so chuffed when I found out,” he said, “it’s the biggest competition of my career, by some distance and I’m delighted to be going. “I think that going and competing in an event as big as the Commonwealth Games is going to be fantastic. I’m looking forward to the whole experience.
“My dad and me have good competition between us, we always have. There were probably six or seven in contention for selection, including me and dad.”
Gary, 53, himself an international class shooter and coach, has come close before: “I still think that I’m the best shooter in the family,” he jokes. “The selectors have made a mistake. I was fourth in the selection for this Games. I was third for the Games in Delhi and fourth again for the Games before that. I’ve been trying very hard to get into the top two, but I’ve just missed out.”
The sport involves shooting 7.62mm, around the size of an AA battery, calibre rounds at a static black circle on a white background from distances varying from 300 to 1000 yards. The sights are ‘iron’ and contain no magnifying lenses, the heavy rifles are held by the shooters and do not rest on any equipment.
Competitors shoot in the ‘prone’ position, lying forwards with the rifle resting against their shoulder. Shooters are awarded 5 points for each shot in the bullseye, four for the next ring out and three for the outer circle.
If scores are equal after three days of shooting, competitors are divided by the amount of ‘veebles’, a smaller circle within the bullseye, registered.
Given the safety implications of shooting with live rounds, there are only a few places in the country that full bore shooting can take place. Today, Jack has come directly from Bisley, the legendary shooting range in Surrey, where he has been training with the Great Britain under 25 squad.
“I’ll be going down there every second week, up until the Games,” he says. “It’s the only civilian range we can use, but it’s only an hour away.”
Full bore shooting represents some of the most fierce competition in the entire Games; more countries are represented in the sport than in any other event.
That is unlikely to faze Jack, who finished second in the qualification event, which attracted competitors from all the Commonwealth nations, last year. He was only edged out by world champion David Luckman on veebles after finished on equal points.
“I won the Irish Open Championship last year and that’s the biggest win of my career so far,” says Jack. “But it’s been my consistency which has helped me to be selected.
“I started when I was about 12 in the Army Cadet Force. My dad took me abroad with him when he was on shoots, he coached me as well in the Cadet Force.
“When I was 18, I was selected from all of UK Cadet Forces and private schools to join the Athelings (the Great Britain Under 19 squad). The squad is only made up of between 12 and 16 members and we went to Canada for a month to shoot against their best cadets.
“I’d already shot for Ireland, but that was my first selection for an international competition. That was when I realised I might have something.”
Gary says that his own career has undoubtedly benefited Jack.
“I, too, started in the Army Cadets about 40 years ago and I’ve been shooting for Great Britain and Ireland for the last 20 years,” he said.
“When Jack was about 14, I started taking him abroad to competitions. He gained an awful lot of experience of different ranges in a whole host of different conditions, at a much earlier age than most people would.”
“The most important thing,” Jack tells me, “is to stay calm, collected and relaxed.”
Easier said than done when firing live ammo at a target up to 915 metres, the length of almost 9 football pitches, away.
“I make sure I’m comfortable and relaxed,” he said. “If you’re tensed up in any way in your left shoulder, it’s not going to go in the middle. If you flinch on the trigger, it’s not going to go in the middle.
“Then you have flags all down the range, which is how you read the wind. That’s one of the most difficult elements. It’s all well and good, being able to shoot at the middle, but if you can’t read the wind you won’t stand a chance.
“Then you come to take the shot. You want to be relaxed in the hand, so that you release a good calm shot and follow through correctly and hopefully you’ll get it in the middle.”
“The mental side of things is the most important. It’s the biggest block and what people struggle with the most. When you start to over-think things, and you know you’re on the end of a good shot, your mind can run away with you.
“You start to think about what will happen if you put your last three in the centre. You think about the trophy and once you do that your pulse goes up, your heart starts beating faster and it’ll affect your shooting hugely. That’s how most people lose competitions. You need to stay calm and collected.”
Though Jack will be the youngest shooter, he’ll have two experienced stalwarts to help him settle on the largest stage of his career. First is the other member of the Northern Ireland squad, David Calvert, one of the most decorated Commonwealth Games champions of all time, who will be taking part in his 10th Games.
Calvert, 63, made his debut in Edmonton in 1978, and has picked up eight medals, including four golds, in his nine Games so far. He has picked up at least one medal in all but one Games since 1990, and will partner Jack in the paired contest before the individual competition starts.
Gary won’t miss out completely, as he has been appointed team manager for the trip north of the border.
“It’ll be great to have that experience around me,” says Jack. “It’s good that Dad’s been appointed team manager. I’ve always had him there as a coach, so this won’t be any different.
“I owe him as much as the Cadets really. He’ll be there to take care of any matter like disputes on the range so that we don’t have to worry about it. We can just focus on shooting.
“Me and David should have a good bond by then.We’ll be training together as much as time allows and it’ll help me to have that good relationship there. I think it’s very important and we need to feel comfortable with each other. The bond will be very important. The pairs come first so having that support will be very important for me, being on that stage for the first time.”
Though Jack is on good terms with his fellow Britons, he knows that when he takes aim, former teammates become competition. “All of the full bore shooters know each other, on first name terms,” he says. “When I’m training with them, I often have one of the English team coaching me.”
“It’s certainly a very friendly sport, but at times we all get extremely competitive, because we all want to win.”
The shooting village will be located at Barry Buddon, a military base between Dundee and Arbroath. The individual competition takes place over three days and those who make the final day will be separated by their total score, out of a maximum of 405.
“The format is taken from the most famous tournament, the Queen’s prize,” says Gary, who also coaches the Wiltshire Army Cadet Force. “The first round is seven rounds to count from 300, 500 and 600 yards.
“Then the second day is 10 rounds to count from the same distances. If you make it to the final day it’s 15 rounds to count from 900 and 1000 yards.”
After the Commonwealth Games, Jack has his keenly trained eyes on the next target, the World Championships which will take place in America in 2015.
“I want to be selected for the Palmer squad, which is probably the hardest Great Britain squad to get into. It’s quite rare for somebody under 25 to get into that squad, but I’m hopeful. It depends how I do this season.”
UPDATE: We have been asked to point out that though Jack has made it into the top two of the long list, it is now a matter of waiting for the final selection of all of the athletes and the offical announcement of the full team in April by the Northern Irish Commonwealth Games Committee.