As he was saying before he was so rudely interrupted
The joke gets a little laugh out of Eric Uptagrafft, who understands that he hasn’t been on the radar for a good long time. That doesn’t mean he’s been under a rock or in deep space, but as a competitive shooter, unless you pull the trigger in the Olympic Games nobody hears the report of the gun.
In that context, Uptagrafft’s been on silent running for 16 years, which is a particularly extended case of citius-altius-fortius interruptus.
“Well, I thought it was impressive until I did a Google search and found an article about old Olympians,” he said. “It turns out there’s a Japanese guy, an equestrian, who’s 71 now and will be in these Olympics. He was in Beijing in 2008 and his previous one before that was 1964.
“So I’m about 30 years short of that record.”
OK, Hiroshi Hoketsu has him beat, but once in that interim the horseman missed out because his animal had to be quarantined, so maybe his record should come with an asterisk.
But we’re missing the point. The story isn’t in all the years Eric Uptagrafft didn’t make the Games, but in the resolve it took to hang in there and make it back.
“Why did I keep doing this all these years?” he wondered. “It’s because you can do this and go to the Olympics.
“Luckily, I’m in one of those sports where you can pretty much do it as long as you give a darn, or until your eyesight’s gone. It’s not gymnastics where you’re over the hill at 20. I had time to work at it and get better. I just didn’t think it would take 16 years.”
The University High School graduate was already 30 years old when he turned up at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, an Olympian with one foot in the amateur past in that he was a part-time shooter moonlighting from his gig as a Lockheed engineer. That alone made him a long shot, though he didn’t think of himself that way – except maybe deep down.
From a prone position 50 meters from the target, Uptagrafft took 60 shots with a .22 and was perfect 52 times. That was good enough for 30th place, and he didn’t sugarcoat his disappointment.
“Back then, I think, I didn’t believe my normal performance was good enough to win a medal,” he said. “I felt like I had to have a superhuman effort to have a chance. That’s pressure you don’t need.”
So he didn’t pack any with him to London.
That isn’t all that’s changed. This time Uptagrafft goes to the Games as half of the first couple of Olympic shooting – Sandra, his wife of 12 years, having already finished her competition, placing 28th in both women’s pistol events.
He’s also bobbed and weaved through different military and shooting incarnations before finally winding up – for a third time – on the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, the Yankees of competitive gunnery.
He was deployed with the Navy in Kuwait after thinking his competitive career had ebbed, gave up his officer’s role in that branch to rejoin the Army to start it up again and did a tour in Afghanistan just last year.
He puts himself and fellow American Mike McPhail in a group of maybe 10 shooters with medal hopes chasing Sergei Martynov of Belarus, the current Usain Bolt of the 50-meter event.
If Uptagrafft’s last Olympic experience seems distant, that’s nothing compared to when the Games first slipped into his consciousness back in 1984 – only a couple of years after he started shooting with the old Foresteen Rifle Club.
“There were friends I shot with and we were going to make the ’84 team,” he laughed. “We had our own road to L.A., living out of the back of a Volkswagen, shooting matches just to even qualify for the tryouts. We didn’t even know what we didn’t know.”
Now he knows. He knows that the sting of finishing 30th faded while the rush of marching in the Opening Ceremonies remained. The once-in-four-years crapshoot of the Games has actually turned into times four for Uptagrafft, and yet still he knows this: “It’s worth doing. It’s so worth doing.”
He can even see himself hanging on for another go in Rio in 2016 at age 50.
Maybe he’ll never catch Hiroshi Hoketsu, but it’s worth a shot.