PHOENIX (AP) — The shirt, with blue short sleeves and U-S-A written above red Olympic rings, remained stashed in the back of Jay Shi‘s closet yet at the forefront of his thoughts.
He would wear it one day. It just had to be earned first.
The shirt was more than fabric, thread, logo. It was a goal, only to be pulled off the hanger when a spot on the U.S. Olympic Shooting Team was his.
“It was out of sight but not out of mind,” Shi said.
Shooting is a sport everyday people believe they could do if they had the right training, support and equipment.
It’s a bit like golf: An average player can hit an occasional good shot, maybe string several together for a good round.
Shooting at the Olympic level goes beyond having a steady hand and a good eye at the local shooting range. It’s a mental game, locking in on the 10-ring every shot, every round under heartbeat-in-the-throat pressure, tuning out the external and internal noise to focus only on target, breath, trigger.
Shi faced even longer odds.
He was 9 when the scissors he was using for a school project slid up a string and into his right eye.
Wanting better medical care for their son, Shi’s parents moved the family from Beijing to New York, where a friend of his grandfather worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Doctors restored his vision, though far from perfectly.
The accident left Shi unable to see fine details, three dimensionally or judge distances well, impairments that would seemingly black out his future as an elite shooter.
Through years of practice, trial and error, determination overcame debilitation and Shi shifted his head, lining up his left eye down the sight of the gun positioned in his right hand.
It’s called shooting cross-eyed, the shooting equivalent of trying to drive a car from the passenger’s seat.
“It’s incredible what he’s been able to accomplish,” said Bill Poole, one of Shi’s earliest coaches at Phoenix Rod and Gun Club. “He put in the work to figure out what he needed to do.”
Shi’s parents appeased his early interest in guns by steering him toward archery, a sport he excelled at until his college workload became too unwieldy.
Once Beijing landed the 2008 Olympics, Shi was determined to return to his hometown and compete on the sporting world’s biggest stage.
Shi didn’t want to do it in archery and thought shooting might be his best chance, so he went to Walmart, bought an off-the-shelf air gun and taped a target to his refrigerator.
He hit the targets in his kitchen and in competition, too, finishing third in his first turn at nationals.
But natural talent could only take him so far. A lack of technical skill became an insurmountable impediment the deeper he went.
Shi fell short of the Beijing Olympics and again at the 2012 London Games after taking three years off — to focus on his career during the economic downturn — sending him spiraling into self-doubt.
“I wanted to quit probably more times than I can count,” he said.
Giving up was not an option, so Shi put his analytical mind to task.
The 37-year-old web developer worked the angles on his cross-eyed shooting dilemma, creating a code to shooting straight.
He tilted his head centimeters to the right. To the left. Shifted his body right. Left. His wrist, too. He tore apart his grip and rebuilt it again and again.
“It was kind of like Edison trying to find a lightbulb,” Shi said. “Then one day it just kind of fell into place; ‘This feels good.’ Then I adopted other ways into what I had just discovered. I was like like wow, this really feels natural.”
Shi’s confidence and technical skill began to rise after his ah-ha moment, mind and muscle memory narrowing into fine focus.
He earned a silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in his first international final and peaked at the U.S. Olympics Trials in April with a dominating performance.
Shi led from the opening round in Fort Benning, Georgia, and closed with field-crushing final day, finishing 26 points ahead of his nearest competitor in men’s free pistol. Only when it was over did Shi break concentration; his father had to tell him he had made the U.S. Olympic Team.
“I thought I would be really excited, but I wasn’t,” Shi said. “I think it was because it took so long. When you have something in the back of your mind that you think about every day for 10 years, you can only dream of it and get by on desire and determination.”
Shi’s drive has led him to the Rio Olympics this August, where he’ll compete in free pistol and air gun.
It also took him to the back of his closet.
The Olympic Trials over, Shi returned home and grabbed that blue shirt with the red logo. He lifted it off the hanger, slid it over his head and checked the fit in the mirror.
“I was very proud and honored to earn the right to wear it,” he said. “I had a smile that lasted quite a while.”