Coast Guard grads put careers on hold for shot at 2020 Olympics

Two recent graduates of the Coast Guard Academy are putting their military careers on hold to vie for the chance to compete in pistol shooting in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Ensigns Helen Oh and Brian Kim, members of the academy's Class of 2019 who were on the academy's shooting team for the past four years, are staying in New London to train under their coach, Richard Hawkins. Hawkins has coached an Olympic silver medalist and a world champion, according to his bio on the academy's website.

"It's not the best shooter or athlete that wins the gold medal, it's the best athlete that day. It's the best performance that you can have that day," Hawkins said, explaining it's the athletes who are able to handle the pressure who succeed.

Oh and Kim spend their afternoons at the academy's shooting range in the basement of Chase Hall. They work until lunch — Kim in the academy's admissions department and Oh at the Coast Guard station in New London — then shoot "until they get tired," Hawkins said. They come in each day with a schedule of what they want to work on.

Kim has put flight school on hold, and Oh has postponed an assignment on one of the Coast Guard's national security cutters based in Hawaii. If they qualify for the Olympics, they will have to defer their Coast Guard careers even further.

Oh is trying to qualify in 10m air pistol and 25m women's sport pistol. Kim is trying to qualify in 10m air pistol and 25m rapid fire pistol. They will compete in several Olympics trial events in the fall and spring for a chance to compete on the big stage in Tokyo. About 390 athletes from around the globe compete in Olympics shooting, which comprises rifle, pistol and shotgun events.

Their training starts with practicing their form. They raise their arm, pistol in hand, and point at the target, then bring their arm back down to their side. They do that over and over again, usually for about 30 minutes before they even pull the trigger. They've sworn off caffeine because they can't afford the jitters or shaky hands, and they wear what look like bowling shoes that provide stability.

But above all, shooting requires mental toughness and painstaking attention to detail.

"You need to self-analyze constantly," said Kim, 23, who's from the Koreatown section of Los Angeles.

The mental skills he's honed through shooting have helped him with academics, he said, because he's used to focusing and concentrating for long periods of time.

Still, some days things just don't click.

"Some days, you wake up and you're not feeling it. No matter how prepared you are, it still doesn't work out," he said. "That's life. You have good days and bad days."

Oh, 22, who's from Walnut, Calif., about 25 miles east of L.A., said she and Kim, who were part of the same prestigious Bridge Jr. Shooting Club in La Puente, Calif., while high school students, are advanced shooters. Now, she said, "it's all about mental strength and the ability to perform under pressure."

She often listens to music before competitions to keep her mind at ease and calm her nerves.

"I try to clear my head and focus, not let any thoughts come," she said. "I try to keep it as normal as possible, so it's just like any other day."

Both Oh and Kim said they've dreamt of being Olympic athletes.

"Whoever wins a gold medal gets their (national) anthem played. Thinking about that," Kim said, pausing, "gives me goose bumps."

j.bergman@theday.com

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