N.D. coach guides Olympic hopefuls

To achieve the Olympic dream, an athlete must aim high. However, dead center was required of Olympic hopefuls competing in the 2013 North Dakota Junior Olympics State Championship qualifying shoot at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club last weekend. A large turnout of 48 shooters competed, up from 31 a year ago.

At stake was a chance to be invited to the National Junior Olympics Championships at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in April. Future possible Olympians ranged in age from 11 to 20. They competed in air rifle, air pistol and smallbore. The shoot had one of the largest turnouts ever seen for a Junior Olympics qualifier in Minot.

“In general we’re seeing larger numbers in junior shooting,” said Wes Thomas, Minot Rifle and Pistol Club junior shooting chairman. “We’re getting more people involved in junior shooting all across the state.”

One of the men closely watching the event was Eric Pueppke of Amenia. Pueppke is as assistant national coach for U.S.A. shooting for Olympic pistol. He is also coach of the North Dakota State University pistol team and brought several shooters to Minot’s competition.

“Junior shooting is a good activity for youth. To be good at it they have to pay attention to details,” said Pueppke. “That usually carries over to school work and other things in their life. I’m really positive about junior shooting.”

Last weekend’s shoot was the first step in a process that could lead to representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games. Those fortunate to advance to the Junior Olympic Championships at Colorado Springs remain candidates for the U.S. Olympic team.

“The winners and second-placers in that match get named to the National Junior Development Team and then I, and the national coach, get to work with them,” explained Pueppke. “They get training matches around the U.S. and sometimes overseas. There’s a lot of opportunity. From the Junior Development Team they advance to the National Development Team. From there to our National Team where our Olympians come from. That’s how it works.”

It is a lengthy process that requires hard work and commitment from potential Olympians. However, says Pueppke, North Dakota shooters are known for their ability to succeed no matter what the competition.

“I’ve heard from the rifle coach at West Point. He has looked at our kids and said he’d love to have them on his team because they have that work ethic,” stated Pueppke. “They work hard. It’s our good old North Dakota work ethic. You get out of it what you put into it and they are dedicated. North Dakota shooters rank really good.”

Pueppke, a successful competitive pistol shooter for 35 years, witnessed his son progress to the Olympic level. He says other shooters are showing the ability to achieve similar results.

“These younger ones aspire to that,” said Pueppke. “You know what the difference between good and great really is? It is how bad they want to be a winner. Some of our Olympians weren’t the best shooters in their club, but what they did have was a burning desire in their heart to be a winner. That’s what makes the difference, a dedication to the sport.”

Thomas agreed with Pueppke’s assessment of North Dakota’s young shooters.

“We are pushing the envelope in North Dakota where we will have people shooting for the Olympic team,” said Thomas.

Pueppke’s presence gives North Dakota shooters the opportunity to interact with a man who knows what it takes to compete in the shooting sports on a very high level.

“In real life I am a farmer,” laughed Pueppke. “What I do is go to the Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs probably five times a year for matches. I hold training camps, also at various locations around the U.S. In June I’ll be going to the Czech Republic to something called the Olympic Hopes match, a junior match attended by about 30 countries. The World Championships is next year in Spain, probably 100 nations or more.

“As part of the National Coach Development staff, I’ve got trips upcoming to Florida, Boston, California and Montana. I have a lot of fun and have met a lot of people.”

Pueppke remains hopeful that someday soon a few of North Dakota’s finest young shooters will be making similar trips to national and world competitions. It is his goal as a shooting coach.

“I’ve always wanted to give back to the sport,” explained Pueppke. “I’ve put my own shooting on the side burner a little bit and helping the juniors.”

Alana Townsend of Kalispell, Mont., earned two automatic invitations to the National Junior Olympics Championships. Townsend excelled in both air pistol and sport pistol, finishing first in each event. Other shooters who earned the right to advance to Colorado Springs are Grant Johnson of Bemidji, Minn., in sport pistol and Mari Butler of Casselton in air rifle.

North Dakota Gold Medal winners were: Brandon Godbout, Casselton, men’s smallbore rifle and air rifle; Dacotah Faught, Amenia, women’s smallbore rifle and air rifle; Luke Simon, Fargo, men’s air pistol; Macy Nelson, Arthur, women’s air pistol; and Shawn Marshall, Minot, men’s sport pistol.