Special Photo Norcross grad Michael Matthews, a junior at the United States Military Academy, has developed into one of the country's top rifle shooters in a short amount of time. He is considered one of the favorites to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
WEST POINT, N.Y. --Michael Matthews' first shooting range was a setup like many youngsters --aluminum cans in the backyard.
Growing up in suburban Atlanta, the Norcross High grad found enjoyment with small targets and his BB gun. It was thrilling, as well as a fun respite from baseball, his main sport and the one preferred by his brothers.
"Rifle is a pretty specific sport, so people always ask how you got into it," Matthews said. "I didn't grow up hunting, but I've always liked shooting cans in the backyard. One day I asked my dad if you could somehow compete sports-wise with it."
Since that day, Matthews has developed from a backyard novice into one of the top young shooters in the country.
A junior on the rifle team at the United States Military Academy, he was a finalist in smallbore (.22 caliber) and the top junior shooter at the 2012 Olympic Trials. His year included a National Junior Prone championship and a title in the 50-meter smallbore three-position at the National Junior Olympic Shooting Championships.
"Michael has developed to a very high level shooter in a relatively short period of time," Army rifle coach Ron Wigger said. "He's only been competing for about four years and has reached the National Team level in about half the time of most competitive shooters. He has the potential to be a superstar in our sport and very likely, if given the opportunity to train and compete after graduating from West Point, could be a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team."
An Olympic berth seemed way off Matthews' radar when he began competitive shooting during his junior year at Norcross. He shot at River Bend Shooting Club in Dawsonville, and later trekked to Griffin for his competitive shooting fix.
His scores soared rapidly and led to Matthews, a two-year letter winner in baseball, giving up that sport. He put all his attention into rifle, and looked seriously into enlisting in the U.S. Marines, until a friend suggested the U.S. Military Academy.
"I looked more into (Army) and I thought it looked like a really good place," said Matthews, an NCAA runner-up in the smallbore last season for the Black Knights. "All the people that have come from here, how could you not want to come here? It's got a prestigious rifle program. That's two really good things there. I called up the coach and asked how I could get to West Point. He was like, 'First off, who are you?' But that kind of sparked it."
That initial conversation determined that Matthews' scores weren't quite Army-worthy, but they were close. That in itself was an accomplishment since he had just six months shooting experience at the time.
Matthews then upped his training to a higher level, building another range in the basement of his parents' home so he could shoot nightly. It was more sophisticated than his Coke cans and BB gun setup, and it worked pretty well.
Suddenly, Matthews was an Army rifle recruit with an academic opportunity at one of the nation's most prestigious institutions. He had planned to share the college education cost with his parents, but instead he had a $400,000-plus education for free.
"It's gone pretty well here," Matthews said. "School's pretty tough. Freshman, or Plebe Year, was pretty interesting. You have to learn how to balance everything with military life, the academics and then rifle on top of that.
"And you only have so many hours in the day because school takes up from 7:30 until about 3. After that you have rifle practice until about 6, dinner until 7 and you start homework at 7. You have five hours if you want to push until midnight. Once you have the time figured out, it's not quite as bad. Once you get to Cow Year and you're starting on your major classes, you're more motivated."
Matthews is a double major in Arabic and Russian, with an eye on FBI or other government work in the future. Through dual enrollment with Georgia Perimeter College, he got a jump start on Arabic while he was in high school. He added Russian to the mix at West Point, along with the basic Spanish he learned at Norcross High School.
"If you're motivated to do it, it's not that bad," Matthews said of the languages. "Sometimes I mix up the languages a little bit. During an oral exam, I might accidentally put Russian into an Arabic test. But I enjoy it. It's a pretty steep learning curve. The writing style. It looks like a bunch of scribbles. But once you learn it, it's just like learning Spanish pretty much."
While that academic pursuit makes Matthews valuable to the academy, so do his rifle skills.
With his success already as a shooter, he is a legitimate candidate for the Army Marksmanship Unit (based at Fort Benning in Columbus) and the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which provides soldier-athletes with support and training as they compete nationally and internationally. It allows them to serve --Army students have a mandatory five-year post-graduate commitment --and also compete in their sport of choice.
The program should allow him to catch up to his more seasoned competitors. At this year's Olympic Trials, most U.S. competitors were older and had 10 to 15 years of shooting experience.
Matthews barely had four years.
"I got good experience (at Trials)," Matthews said. "A bunch of the Army Marksmanship Unit guys try out, so I got my name out there if I want to shoot in the Army Marksmanship Unit in the future."
There is plenty of time for Matthews to think about those future goals. He has the upcoming college season, which resumes Jan. 12, and the pursuit of an NCAA championship both this season and as a senior in 2013-14. He is part of the Black Knights' 11-person, co-ed roster.
He now trains with rifles that cost thousands of dollars instead of a BB gun, but he still gets the same thrill at the country's top shooting venues as he did in his backyard range.
"Shooting's come pretty easy for me," Matthews said. "That kind of comes with some cons. You don't want to rest on your laurels. I've noticed in baseball when it comes easy to a lot of people, they are the ones that don't go very far. They don't push past that and try to get to a higher level. I didn't want that to happen to me. I still like the challenge."THE MATTHEWS FILE
Who: Michael Matthews
-- NCAA runner-up in smallbore competition as a sophomore
-- Finalist and top junior shooter at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in smallbore
-- Majoring in Arabic and Russian at the West Point, N.Y., academy