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magazine home > archives > winter 2004 > features

The U of M athletic department has produced all-conference performers for decades. The latest star, though, is from a sport that might just surprise you.

Top Gun
by Greg Russell

Tiger Rifle Team

The U of M rifle team is ranked in the top 10 and has hopes of an NCAA title in March. From left, team members Brian Phillips, Sarah Carr, J.B. Vaughan, Beth Tidmore, Kate Benjamin and Bobby LeBlanc.

The U of M athletic department has produced all-conference performers for decades. The latest star, though, is from a sport that might just surprise you.

If U of M sophomore Beth Tidmore makes it to the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, this summer, she may want to thank, of all people, singer Marvin Gaye.

"When I am on the line shooting, I often hum or have a song running through my head," says Tidmore. "Today, it is Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On.' Tomorrow, it might be the last thing I heard on the radio. Whatever the song, it helps me concentrate."

If the soulful singer were still alive, he might be proud. Tidmore has just threaded the needle of a bull's-eye — no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence — more times than not during a practice session. It is this kind of focus that has transformed Tidmore into one of the top air rifle competitors in the country.

Tidmore won the U.S. Junior Olympics last summer at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and finished as the third best shooter of either gender at the USA National Shooting Championship in June. Her accurate marksmanship at this event boosted her from the national developmental squad to the U.S. National Team.

Closer to home, Tidmore has led the University's air rifle team to a top 10 NCAA ranking and the small bore team to a top 20 standing. Can anybody say "Olympic Games?"

U.S. Olympic rifle coach David Johnson certainly can. "We are going to get her some international experience this spring to build her ability and her confidence," Johnson says. "She is one of our top three females in the country and has as equal of a chance as anyone else on our national team to go to Greece. She has a great future in the sport."

Tiger rifle coach Butch Woolbright adds, "If not this year, then 2008 for sure."

Tidmore — more focused on NCAA competition at the moment — remains cautious about her chances. "This is a new sport for me and I don't have a lot of international experience — that is what you need. There are a lot of people who have trained longer than I have who also are in a position to go."
Come May 21, which is the beginning of a three-day Olympic trial, Tidmore may reach her goal, becoming the U of M's first Olympian since track star Rudy Sylvan (2000) and basketball player Anfernee Hardaway (1996).

On target

Tidmore is trying hard to recall exactly what drew her to a sport that may one day garner her international attention.

"My mom grew up on a farm, but my family members really weren't big hunters," says the Decatur, Ga., native.

"My grandfather used to shoot at turtles to scare them away from his pond — that is about as close as I got to a gun. I did join my junior high team, but I really don't know why."

Whatever the reason, it didn't take long for her mother to recognize her potential.

"She could always tell," Tidmore says with a smile. "She bought me a very nice and expensive gun on April Fool's Day, 2000. That is the day my scores went up dramatically. That made the biggest difference in my shooting career."

Woolbright, who started the U of M rifle team 12 years ago, also saw Tidmore's potential and recruited
her to Memphis. He says the one most important attribute a shooter can possess is what makes Tidmore so
exceptional.

"You must have the mental discipline to do it perfectly every time you pull the trigger," says Woolbright. "You must get into a mental zone and do the same thing the same way every single time."
Tidmore agrees. "It all has to be subconscious — taking aim, pulling the trigger — all of it," she says. "You want to do it without thinking about it."

At the Junior Olympic competition last summer, Tidmore's markmanship was right on target — she out-shot the other 91 competitors at the event for the gold medal. During a match earlier this season, she shot an almost perfect score of 391 to help the U of M defeat Ole Miss.

Shooting stars

Tidmore's sport doesn't often make headlines and most U of M students and alumni may not even know the school fields a team. "If I had a nickel for every time I have heard that, we would be rich," says assistant coach John Dowdy. "Probably most people don't even know what the sport is all about."

Dowdy, who has been with the program since its inception 12 years ago, says that in the NCAA, the sport of rifle is divided into two parts — air rifle and small bore. At a match, the aggregate score from these two areas determines the overall winning squad.

Teams, which are co-ed, consist of four shooters who take aim at a target 10 meters away. The ever-so-tiny bull's-eye — it takes magnification from even 10 meters away to see it — is worth 10 points. A perfect score in
air rifle is 400; shooters have 40 minutes to take the 80 required shots. In small bore, the maximum point total is 1,200.

Woolbright says his current U of M team is the best squad he has coached. Last year, the Tigers were ranked in the top 25 heading into sectional competition, but failed to advance to nationals because of a miserable shooting performance.

"The team this year has more experience — a big match doesn't bother them," Woolbright says. "There is no intimidation factor with them. That is what sets us apart."

Because Conference USA does not include rifle as a championship sport, the Tigers are members of the Great American Rifle Conference. Ole Miss, Kentucky, Xavier and Army are among other members.

To get to the NCAA national championship this March, Memphis must be one of the top seven teams at the sectional competition in late February. A few individuals not on the qualifying schools can advance, too.

The U of M team is relatively young — the only senior is Bartlett, Tenn., native Bobby LeBlanc. Junior J.B. Vaughan and freshmen Kate Benjamin, Sarah Carr and Brian Phillips round out the squad.

The team practices, holds matches and occupies office space — all as a gift-in-kind — at RangeMaster.

Parting shots

Despite defeating former Olympians and the nation's other top shooters at nationals last summer, Tidmore believes her best chance at the Olympics will be in the 2008 games to be held in Beijing.

Under-confident? Not exactly.

"I feel like I could hold my own if I do go to Athens this year," she says. "I have only been shooting for four years though — I need to get more international experience and more big matches under my belt and that will help me shoot high scores more consistently. I am still not at my peak."

A nursing major with a 3.8 GPA, Tidmore envisions graduating and using her degree to support herself while she trains for future Olympics. She is also taking aim at another career which warrants precision — she hopes one day to become a physician.

For the moment, Tidmore says she is content to spend four hours a night in practice, taking aim at a miniscule bull's-eye.

"Practice makes perfect," Tidmore says. That, and a little help from Marvin Gaye.

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