Saturday, March 28, 2009

Shooter Aims for 2012 Paralympics

An infantryman for most of his Army career, Army Staff Sgt. Josh Olson never dreamed he would someday become an internationally ranked shooter with the Army's World Class Athlete Program.

But everything changed for Olson after losing his right leg in an attack during a deployment to Iraq in 2003.

"I was going to get out of the military," Olson said. "I was an infantryman, and I knew I couldn't do that anymore, so I just wanted to get out. Then this opportunity came up and it gave me a renewed sense of duty and honor."

That opportunity was a call from U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit recruiters to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Olson was undergoing physical therapy. Olson had been participating in a program that provides hunting, fishing and outdoor sports events to recovering soldiers. When medical center officials asked if any soldiers were interested in an AMU recruiting trip here, Olson jumped at the chance.

"When I found out I could do this, I was like, 'Yeah, absolutely, let's do it!'" he said. "You can't be in the fight, but you have the opportunity to help soldiers who are going to fight. So I'm still contributing, just in a different way."

Since joining the AMU international rifle shooting team in 2005, Olson has risen rapidly through the world of shooting. He competed in the 2006 International Paralympics Committee World Championships and the 2007 Oceanic Games, and earned a spot as an alternate on the 2008 Paralympics team. Today, he's aiming for a spot on the U.S. shooting team at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

"As far as he's come in such a short period of time is amazing," Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker, Olson's AMU teammate, said. "He came to us with no international shooting experience and in three years' time, he was an alternate. We expect him to be up on the medal podium in another three years."

To qualify for the Paralympics, Olson will need to shoot at least three qualifying scores in international matches over the next four years. He expects to have shot at least two by the end of this year.

Olson's dedication and positive attitude have set an example for the entire unit, Parker said.

"He's always had a positive attitude," Parker said. "That's one of the great things about him. You look at him and sometimes you can see that he's not feeling great, but he's out there putting out 100 percent. He's a great motivator. He's contributed to our mission in every possible way."

Olson said that knowing his AMU teammates are counting on him helps keep him motivated during tough times.

"On days I don't want to get up and come to training and I'm kind of feeling sorry for myself, I think, 'Hey look, there are people counting on you, so you need to get out there and work your butt off,'" he said.

He credits his injury with allowing him to serve and represent his country in new ways.

"Without me getting injured, I would have never gotten the opportunity to come here and shoot," he said. "Being wounded might have closed some doors, but it opened others in other places. And this is one of the places it opened up -- for me to be able to compete, shoot and train troops and still be contributing to the war effort.

"Being a disabled veteran, to go out and wear U.S.A. on your jacket and to hear them announce you -- 'Now shooting for the U.S., Josh Olson' -- that's a pretty big deal. I can't represent the U.S. as a deployed soldier, but now I represent them on a whole new battlefield -- the athletic field."
Photo: Army Staff Sgt. Josh Olson trains with a .22-caliber rifle at Fort Benning, Ga. Olson, a member of the Army Marksmanship Unit's international rifle team, spends about 15 hours training each week and participates in between 10 and 15 national and international matches each year. Olson is the only wounded warrior in the AMU. Courtesy photo

(Author Caroline Gotler works at the Fort Benning public affairs office.)
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