Lucas Kozeniesky’s Olympics lasted about 41 minutes from start to finish, 41 minutes of popping, pinging and, in the end, hard-won pride if not ultimate success.
Kozeniesky was the first of the 50 competitors in 10-meter air rifle to fire all 60 shots, long before anyone else finished. If there were prizes for speed in target shooting, Kozeniesky would have won gold.
His rise in the sport has been almost as fast as his preferred pace, and after the N.C. State rising senior finished a very respectable 21st in front of his parents and girlfriend and coach, his focus already had turned to the future: to his classes, which begin next week; to his final season with the Wolfpack; to his future as one of USA Shooting’s rising stars; to 2020.
Kozeniesky’s performance this year has cemented his position in the sport. He finished 13 spots ahead of the other American in the event, Daniel Lowe, a member of the Army’s elite marksmanship unit, and any of his three scores from the U.S. Olympic Trials would have been good enough to make the final eight.
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What he won instead is the experience of competing in the Olympics, the motivation to take N.C. State’s rifle team to new heights and a sense of accomplishment he could never have imagined a year ago, before the sport clicked for him and he became one of the best in the world.
“That was about as good as it could have been,” Kozeniesky said. “There was a lot of pressure, just a lot of stuff going on. I performed pretty well. That was probably one of my better performances. I’m pretty proud of myself for that.”
It was a whirlwind week for Kozeniesky in Rio, from his viral NBC cameo behind Michael Phelps, eating a loaf of bread while the U.S. flagbearer was being interviewed before the opening ceremony, to watching his friend and old high school competitor Ginny Thrasher win America’s first gold of the games Saturday. The two learned to shoot in an old tractor shed in Centreville, Va., a long way from Brazil.
Thrasher’s parents came to watch Kozeniesky shoot Monday, still giddy from their daughter’s success. Kozeniesky’s parents were no less proud of their son, who was really only about three wayward shots away from qualifying for the finals. The sport is scored on a 10 scale with decimals, with the top score being a 10.9. Kozeniesky averaged 10.37; the top qualifier averaged 10.50, a margin of less than a millimeter.
I’m definitely going to get ready for 2020, I just don’t know what avenue. But I’m going to keep at this after college.
On his 50th shot, Kozeniesky went high for a 9.4 with a shot that looked and felt good. He took a water break and settled back in with a 10.5 on his next shot.
“That’s the thing about him,” N.C. State coach Keith Miller said. “He has the ability to figure out what’s wrong and fix it. He’s not going to let it bug him.”
As Kozeniesky shot, his father and girlfriend agonized from seats just behind the range, doing the math in their heads, while his mother read a book, her routine to “avoid sending stress vibes.” Blair Gruendl, his longtime girlfriend and a student at the University of Mary Washington, said it’s all been a lot for her to process. They arrived Saturday. They leave Tuesday. It all went so quickly.
As much as Kozeniesky was absorbed in the present, he couldn’t help but think ahead: to this college season and to his future in the sport. He’ll go back to N.C. State with a new sense of ambition to share with his teammates, and by next year at this time he will have decided his best route to Tokyo in 2020.
His father is a Marine colonel, weeks away from retirement. His brother is a Marine infantryman, recently deployed. The Army marksmanship unit is a possibility. There are also civilian options. Kozeniesky says his family has, and will, let him find his own path. Where it will take him, none of them know.
“He’s a lot different than his brother,” Col. Craig Kozeniesky said. “I’m an oldest child as well, and it seemed like his brother assumed some pressure to follow me. And he did, to a degree, on his own. Lucas, he’s definitely got a view on the long look on the prize, where he wants to be, in coaching and sports.”
There are a few certainties in his future. One is an Oct. 15 rifle match against West Virginia at renovated Reynolds Coliseum, N.C. State’s first home match in almost a decade, one that will feature two Olympians – Kozeniesky and Thrasher – in what figures to be a tremendous step forward for the Wolfpack program.
And while he has room to improve in air rifle, as far as he has come this fast, there’s a lot of work to be done in the 50-meter smallbore rifle, a discipline in which he competes for N.C. State but has yet to break through at the senior international level.
“I’m definitely going to get ready for 2020, I just don’t know what avenue,” Kozeniesky said. “But I’m going to keep at this after college.”
A year ago, Kozeniesky couldn’t have imagined himself in this position. It’s hard to set expectations for where he’ll be a year from now, let alone four years from now.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock