Luke DeCock

Wolfpack rifle star takes aim at Olympics – DeCock

It’s the stillness you notice: Lucas Kozeniesky with his air rifle pressed to his right shoulder, pointed at the target, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger.

There’s motion all around – trains rumbling and cars driving past the windows of the ground-floor rifle range in N.C. State’s Broughton Hall, computers blinking, fluorescent lights buzzing, ventilation whirring. Even the cinder-block pillars smack in the middle of the firing range, with the targets set to either side, seem to waver when compared to Kozeniesky’s implacability.

The wait is interminable. And then there’s a loud pop, and a red circle pops up on the laptop in front of him to indicate just how accurate the shot was. Usually, it’s pretty accurate.

That stillness is where all the action is. For a beginning target shooter, N.C. State coach Keith Miller said, it’s about 95 percent technique and 5 percent mental. For someone like Kozeniesky, who just qualified for August’s Rio Olympics in the 10-meter air rifle, one of two males in that discipline from the United States, it’s the other way around: 5 percent technique and 95 percent mental.

Kozeniesky wears his normal eyeglasses when he shoots, proving you don’t need superhuman vision, and he superstitiously travels to competitions without a toothbrush, proving you don’t need fresh breath. With his glasses and skinny build, he could be mistaken for one of Broughton Hall’s engineering TAs instead of an Olympian practicing in the basement.

It’s the moments between when Kozeniesky shoulders his rifle and pulls the trigger when his real talent arises, his ability to not only manage the imperceptible internal chaos amid the stillness but make it look easy.

“Stop thinking and just let it happen,” he said. “It’s the simplest thing, really.”

Rifle is one of those odder NCAA-sanctioned sports, like bowling or beach volleyball, that seems easy to scoff at until you see it done at an elite level. It’s also the only co-ed NCAA sport, with women demonstrating a slight edge on men, which makes it doubly unique. N.C. State has had a team since 1958, but Kozeniesky is the Wolfpack’s first Olympian and, this season, became the school’s first all-American since 1975.

At the college level, all shooters compete in both air rifle and small-bore rifle, a .22 caliber rifle. The air rifle is fired from the shoulder, while there are three shooting positions for small-bore rifle, which tends to take longer to master. At the Olympics, they are separate disciplines. Air rifle uses a futuristic-looking polished metal rifle to fire pea-sized pellets that look like the Holy Grail, at least the kind Indiana Jones found. It has been an Olympic sport since 1984, and no American has ever medaled in it.

“The window to get to the final, to just to have the opportunity to medal, is going to be a millimeter,” Kozeniesky said. “It’s going to be very hard. Not impossible.”

The difference between the two is not unfamiliar to him. The son of a Marine colonel and younger brother of a Marine infantryman, the 21-year-old N.C. State rising senior started target shooting at his Virginia high school. As a freshman, he was the worst on his team.

Since then, he’s made it not only to N.C. State but Thailand, Spain and France. Immediately after the Olympic trials in Ohio earlier this month, he was invited to Luxembourg for an elite training camp run by the sport’s international governing body, shooting alongside his future Olympic opponents, rooming with the other American qualifier in air rifle.

In addition to blocky boots for stability and sweater-like undergarments to muffle the heartbeat, target shooters wear complex suits of heavy leather and canvas designed to help their balance and give support in the shooting position – to bolster the left hand, which must support the rifle, for example, or create friction between the left elbow and body to anchor that arm. Kozeniesky’s was custom-made for him in the Czech Republic in N.C. State colors. Down the back of his left leg, it reads “N.C. State.”

He’ll wear the same suit in the Olympics. The only question is whether they’ll make him remove the school’s name as part of the Olympic rule against sponsorships. Either way, he’ll be wearing Wolfpack black and red as he shoots for the red, white and blue.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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