Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan — Will Hinton, 16 of Dacula anticipates as his father Doug Hinton tosses a clay target outside their home on Tuesday. Hinton is a two time sub-junior National Champion and a three time all America shooter. He has been a part of the highest ranking shooting class, the "master class" for the past 2 years. "I always played sports but I liked shooting the most, so that's what I stuck with," Hinton said. Hinton will be among those representing the United States of America when he competes in the junior olympics in Colorado in June 2012.
DACULA -- Will Hinton breathes in.
The 16-year-old gathers his thoughts, one by one. He discards the negative and stokes the positive.
He breathes out.
Stock pressed snug against his shoulder, he raises the barrel, eyes narrowing behind anti-glare glasses as he stares up into the clear blue.
With the bead of his shotgun, he traces the path of a day-glo orange clay disc. With the squeeze of a trigger it explodes into a million pieces.
The Dacula High School sophomore spends three to four afternoons a month busting clay pigeons among 20-plus acres on the Hinton family farm. His self-training and mental exercises have served him well in competition.
But the endless gold medals, trophies, plaques and prizes he's won over the past four years could hardly prepare him for the phone call he received two weeks ago.
The pros had taken an interest.
Officials with an organization chartered by the U.S. Olympic Committee asked if he'd like to join the 2012 Junior Olympic Shotgun Team as the youngest of only four double trap shooters in the nation.
The Junior Olympic program, which is considered the gateway into the USA Shooting Team's Olympic path, chooses only the country's best to train for the biggest competitions.
As a member of the team, Hinton and colleagues will travel around the world, competing in world cups and other high-profile events. As a member, he's expected to win a world cup within two years.
Mom and Dad know he can do it. They've known he's had something special for quite a while.
"I could see it when I first gave him the gun," said father Doug Hinton. "He's just got it, and we're behind him 110 percent."
Sharon Hinton said her son decided he was going to be a champion when he was 12.
"He came to his dad and said 'this is what I want to do,'" she said. Shortly after that, the young man entered a junior competition at Callaway Gardens, and he dominated.
"People there were coming up to us and saying, 'Who's his trainer? Who's coaching him?' It was the first time he'd ever competed," she said.
The young man said the shotgun has been his gun of choice since the beginning.
The first one he held in his hands was a .410 shotgun, a small caliber gun. He was 8 years old.
"I've never been a big rifle or pistol person," Will Hinton said. "With rifles, you have to be steady and silent. With shotguns, it's a more fun, enthusiastic game. You're constantly moving. It's more energetic, and you can have a better time with people."
In competitions, a 12-gauge shotgun is often used. For precision, competitors use chokes, which are attachments placed at the end of the barrel to constrict shotgun pellet patterns.
Said Hinton: "If you're going to shoot something real far you want a tight pattern."
One of Hinton's sponsors handmade the chokes for his shotgun with his name emblazoned across them.
For the double trap category of the junior Olympics team, chokes are commonly used. Other categories include men's and women's trap and men's and women's skeet.
In double trap, two targets are released simultaneously. They follow set paths, usually 35 degrees to the left and right. The shooter can take one shot at each of the targets.
For the 2012 Junior Olympic Shotgun Team, 22 shooters were selected for the team in all categories.
National Shotgun Coach Bret Erickson and the shotgun team committee reviewed applications from around the United States.
Erickson said the "talent pool has strengthened over the past year, and the competition was steep. We're happy to acknowledge this group of young kids in hopes that they'll gain the confidence and maturity necessary to be elite-level shooters in our program down the road."
According to its website, USA Shooting prepares American athletes "to win Olympic and Paralympic medals, promote the shooting sports throughout the U.S., and govern the conduct of international shooting in the country."
Through the support of his family and his own mental discipline, Hinton said he hopes to continue in his success. His school leaders have faith in him as well.
Donnie Nutt, principal at Dacula High School, said Hinton will "represent us well" in upcoming national competitions.
"In addition to the talent, it takes a lot of hard work, and Will has done that," Nutt said "I've been around athletes all my life, and he's one of the best."
Nutt said he and others have been following Hinton's rise since he was in middle school.
Talent and discipline
In 2009, Hinton entered 13 National Sporting Clays Association tournaments. He shot several events including the U.S. Open. He progressed from D to A Class in 2009 and was Sub Junior Champion in five events. He also made the All American Team in the same year.
In 2010, Hinton punched into Master class at the age of 14 and became one of the best youth shooters in the country, making the All American Team again. He shot 25 national tournaments and was Sub Junior or Junior Champion 19 times. At the end of 2010, he earned Sub Junior Champion at the National Championships in San Antonio, Texas.
When it comes to success at the tournaments and championships, Hinton said mental training is important. The moment before he squeezes the trigger, he said, is half the battle.
"I'll practice my mental routine," Hinton said. "I think positive thoughts, like, 'You've done this 100 times, you know what to do.' Mentally, you've just got to trust yourself and let it happen."
Added Hinton: "Breathing is a big part of it, because when you're focusing on breathing you relax your whole entire body. The key to shooting is relaxation."
Hinton said he also doesn't get frustrated with himself in the sport. "I've come to the point where I know everybody misses," he said. "Just like any other sport, nobody can throw a strike all the time. Why stress about it if you know you're not perfect? You don't let your emotions interfere with what you're doing."
He takes the same outlook in his quest to compete in the 2016 Olympics. "Nothing's guaranteed," he said. "But I plan to try my best. When you get on the junior Olympic team, they know you're capable of it, so I'll be training hard."
Father exudes confidence and pride for his son.
"When God gives you the talent and the ability to do what you love to do, that's a blessing," Doug Hinton said. "We are thankful for what God has given our son."
To track Hinton's progress, visit www.juniorclayshooting.com, youthclays.com or usashooting.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org