RIO DE JANEIRO — Virginia Thrasher went through a three-week spring whirlwind, winning three NCAA titles and a spot on the U.S. Olympic Shooting team.
The precocious 19-year-old closed out the summer with her biggest surprise yet.
Keeping her nerve on sport’s biggest stage, Thrasher on Saturday earned the first gold medal of the Rio Olympics, outlasting two-time gold medalist Du Li to capture the women’s 10-meter air rifle title.
“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” Thrasher said. “I knew it was a realistic expectation for me to get into the finals and once you get into the finals, anything can happen. For me, this year has been incredible.”
Thrasher had a quick rise to the top.
A figure skater growing up, she switched sports five years ago after a hunting trip with her family. Thrasher killed a deer with her first shot of her first hunting trip and has continued to hit the mark wherever she’s gone.
Thrasher was not expected to be among the top five scorers — all that counts in NCAA competition — at shooting powerhouse West Virginia, yet got better as the season progressed. She became the first freshman to win both NCAA rifle titles and led the Mountaineers to the team championship.
Less than a month later, Thrasher won the U.S. Olympic Trials, earning a spot in Rio.
She didn’t flinch at the sport’s brightest spotlight — or an air horn.
Though not expected to be a medal contender, Thrasher finished a spot behind fellow American Sarah Scherer at sixth in qualifying to make the eight-person final.
She opened the elimination finals — a new format in this year’s Olympics — with a perfect 10.9 and was in the lead after Scherer became the first shooter knocked out.
Thrasher stayed in the top spot as her competitors fell off, consistently hitting 10s despite a fan blowing an air horn at random times.
Thrasher entered the final with a 0.7-point lead and opened with a solid 10.5, which Li matched. Thrasher smiled after a 10.4 left a slight opening, but Li’s 10.1 on her final shot sent Thrasher on a surprising trip to the podium.
“In the finals, about halfway through, it kind of became clear to me that I was in contention for a medal,” Thrasher said. “But I quickly pushed that thought away and focused on breathing, just taking one shot at a time.”
Thrasher pulled it off against two of the world’s best rifle shooters, Li and Yi Siling.
Li won gold medals in air rifle in 2004 at the Athens Games and in 3-position rifle in Beijing four years later. She also competed in the 2012 London Games and pulled off a clutch shot in the Rio final, hitting 10.9 to stay alive in the second round.
Yi took a similar path as Thrasher’s, earning air rifle gold at the 2012 London Games just three years after starting her international shooting career.
Thrasher stood her ground against the two Chinese shooters in the medal eliminations, hitting nothing lower than 10.4. Yi went out after a 9.8 on her final shot to earn bronze and Thrasher finished with a cumulative score of 208.0 to beat Li by a point in front of a rowdy crowd.
“I heard the cheers and the horns and it was very disturbing,” Yi said. “But I just had to control myself. I also looked up and saw that Virginia and Du Li were doing well themselves.”
Thrasher ended up on top of the podium and her whirlwind will wind down soon; a biomedical engineering major, she starts classes again at West Virginia on Aug. 17.
“I’m actually looking forward to getting back to school again,” Thrasher said.
She will have a new title when she returns: Olympic champion.