Straight from their successes in Intershoot, Ray Kane, Paul O'Boyle, Peter Friend and Aisling Miller, accompanied by team Manager Joe Kinane and Peter's coach Rob Stubbs, headed for Finland on Tuesday 14th February for the supreme test of nerves that is the European Airgun Championships. 593 competitors from 45 nations were chasing just 16 remaining quota places for the Olympics - four in each of the men's and women's pistol and rifle events. Billed as the "Gateway to London", the sports centre at Vierumaki and the local town of Heinola certainly put on a superbly organised event against a backdrop of snow and ice.
Our rifle competitors and team manger travelled to Helsinki airport via Schiphol, Amsterdam. On arrival at Helsinki we were pleasantly surprised to see our bags appear on the carousel immediately we arrived at the baggage hall. An announcement for "O'Boyle, Kane and Miller to come to the Servisair desk " over the PA system boded well initially, but turned to disappointment when we were told that the rifles had not been transferred in Amsterdam! The best the Servisair agent could promise us was that the rifles would arrive on the midnight flight and would be delivered to our hotel in Vierumaki the following day at 1 or 2pm. Despite our protests that we needed the rifles for free practice at 9am, there seemed to be no way that we would get them from Servisair any sooner. A 90 minute coach jouney brought us to the range in Vierumaki, where we organised accreditation photos and deposited some of the gear. A chat with the transport organisers gave me a glimmer of hope that they might be able to do something for us, so we got baggage receipts photocopied and given to a coach driver to pass to the Finnish Shooting Association volunteers at the airport, where they were awaiting teams arriving overnight. At breakfast the next morning we got the welcome news that they had retreived the rifle cases on the midnight flight and that they were waiting for us in the competition office - phew!
After the taster of winter weather in Holland, the team got to see some serious snow and ice. Temperatures of -5C day-time and -10C night-time were experienced throughout our stay. The previous week the mercury had dropped to -25C, so we really didn't have anything to complain about! Once you were wrapped up well, the 1k walk to and from the range (buses are for wimps) was really enjoyable. Apart from a few sinus problems caused by the cold, dry air we had no issues. The sky was overcast for most of our stay, with only a couple of hours of clear sun on two days, so it was pretty gloomy. I was told by a local that the snow clears about the first week in May!
The main range facilities were superb, great light and plenty of space in a comfortable temperature. The Finals Hall was in a completely separate building about 500m away, where finalists and their gear had to be bussed. This, too, was superbly equipped and the national broadcaster YLE had set up an array of cameras to cover the finals live on TV and feed them to Eurovision. Both halls are multi-purpose and are used for basketball, tennis, indoor golf etc. and the airgun range facilities are only temporary.
After a good training session on Wednesday, we attended Equipment Control, where, despite use of a ticketing system it was hours before the rifle shooters got through the process. There were no issues with Aisling's gear as we had checked it in UCD prior to the event. Paul had a slight issue with the jacket overlap as it was done using a different gauge (spring loaded) than the one we use. Once we moved the buttons it passed ok and both sets were given an ISSF tag and yellow equipment control card which will eliminate the need to go through control in future comps. That evening we attended the opening ceremony, where Paul O'Boyle was our flag-bearer. After a colourful display of traditional (and some not-so-traditional) dancing, and speeches from the great and good, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and an early night.
In contrast to Intershoot, where there was a competition each day, ESC/ISSF championships attract larger numbers of juniors and seniors competing in rifle and pistol disciplines separately, so there is a slow build-up to a qualification event, with training sessions for seniors built around the juniors events. In our case this meant that we had a day off completely on Thursday, with pre-event training (PET) on Friday for Aisling and Peter's qualification events on Saturday. We had the opportunity to view the Running Target events which were taking place in the same building as the Finals Hall. This event has two competitors taking alternate shots at a 10m target which moves across the field of view from left to right or right to left with slow and fast runs. The competitor is standing just like regular 10m rifle, but uses a scoped rifle (4x) with a weighted barrel.
Pre-event training went well for Peter and Aisling on Friday. Competition day on Saturday was a major stressor for both and Aisling improved her international PB with a 381. After a ding-dong battle in the final, Sonja Pfeilschifter controlled the situation to beat Katerina Emmons for the women's title.
Ray and Paul had their share of issues also. Ray particularly so as he had been the subject of close scrutiny by the judges during pre-event training for an alleged breach of the spirit of the rule 126.96.36.199.4/6 which states that the rifle must not touch the jacket or chest beyond the area of the right shoulder or chest (right-handed shooter) and must not touch or rest against any other point or object. They felt that his fingers around the grip might be touching the jacket at some point. Ray had to modify his position sightly to ensure compliance and this caused additional pressures during the match. Ray's score of 585 was all the more admirable given the circumstances, but left him out of contention for the quota place which would have needed 595 on the day.
Overall, a learning experience for the group. An object lesson in how we need to be at every international competition in order to build the familiarity with the officials and competitors to gain mutual respect and eliminate those performance anxieties.