FORT MOORE, Ga. (WRBL) — In a competition requiring deadly accuracy, it’s more than physical skill which defines champions. The top rifle and pistol shooting athletes in the country gathered at the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) training facilities at Fort Moore for the first part of the USA Shooting Olympic Trials for the Summer 2024 Olympics in Paris. Top finishers and their coaches said it was mental training which separated good athletes from great ones.

From Sept. 28 to Oct. 3, athletes competed in men’s and women’s 10m air pistol, men’s and women’s 50m smallbore, men’s 25m rapid fire pistol and women’s 25m sport pistol. The USAMU had top finishers in multiple events, including the men’s air 10m air rifle final where Sgt. Ivan Roe, Staff Sgt. Brandon Muske and Sgt. Timothy Sherry swept the top three positions.

“If you asked me [how important mental training is] six months ago, I would’ve said not super important,” said Roe, who finished first in both smallbore and air rifle. “But now that I’ve been really working on it a lot lately, I can say that it is the difference between being good and great.”

Prior to joining the Army, Roe was a seven-time NCAA All-American in shooting representing Murray State University. Roe’s peers who finished at the top of their events also had backgrounds including NCAA All-American titles, NCAA Champion titles and past Olympic experience.

In 2021, Sgt. Sagen Maddalena was part of the women’s 3-position rifle (smallbore) team representing the United States at the Tokyo games. This weekend, Maddalena placed second in both women’s air rifle and smallbore. She was mindful that a top finish this weekend did not guarantee an Olympic team spot: two more rounds of Olympic trials still need to be run before then.

“There’s not this huge relief or huge accomplishment,” Maddalena said. “It’s like, ‘Alright, now I gotta keep my head set in the right spot and continue moving forward.’ Because the race is just started.”

This type of no-nonsense mentality is something Maddalena said she has learned through her 10 years of experience in the sport.

“It’s not life or death anymore … I used to obsess over it, so my success and my failures really drove who I was as a person,” said Maddalena, remembering the stress and anxiety she felt the last time she competed for an Olympic spot.

Now she trusts her roughly 40 hours of weekly training dedicated to shooting, maintaining physical fitness and mastering emotions will provide the desired result.

She said, “That’s one of my strengths, is that I can almost look like a machine when you’re looking at me from the firing line. And it’s just the dedicated amount of hours that I’ve put into keeping my emotions in check.”

Like Maddalena, Roe has put significant hours into training his mind to be calm during competition. He practices breathing exercises to center himself, listens to classical music to lower his heart rate and practices lacrosse ball manipulations to work on hand-eye coordination.

“I’ve only been doing it for a couple months so far, but I seem to be getting good results,” Roe said. He noted it was nice to secure gold medals after years of silvers. “I’m going to keep testing it in matches and if it continues to work, I’m just going to try to maintain what I’m doing.”

The pressure of competing for an Olympic spot was not lost on Roe, but he said the support of his peers was instrumental in his success. About 40 members of the USAMU showed up to watch the air rifle finals which Roe, Muske and Sherry won.

“It’s always good to have somebody you get to see every day who’s constantly pushing you and trying to be better than you,” said Roe. He continued, “You have to try to be better than them, so it just raises the bar for everyone to just continually improve.”

The USAMU Commander Lt. Col. Casey Mills was pleased with the performance of his soldiers and felt much of their success came down to support within the unit.

He said, “We had a tremendous performance here … our greatest strength is the teamwork and the camaraderie that we have here. We’ve got some of the best shooters in the country that train together every single day and that just drives them to a higher level of success.”

Parts two and three of trials for the Summer 2024 Paris Olympics will be held in Colorado Springs this December and in Tucson, Arizona in March next year.