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Kenny Moore
August 02, 1976
Lanny Bassham thought he had been beaten in the small-bore competition and that the Games' big shot surely was teammate Margaret Murdock
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August 02, 1976

Enough To Take His Breath Away

Lanny Bassham thought he had been beaten in the small-bore competition and that the Games' big shot surely was teammate Margaret Murdock

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Captain Lanny Bassham, U.S. Army, sat in the breezy cafeteria tent beside the Olympic shooting range and watched his wife Helen draw from her purse his gold medal for the small-bore three-position rifle competition. The gleaming satiny finish of the medal caused a friend to reach out and turn it, discovering a space on the back for an inscription.

"I think I'll have it engraved THE PROGRAM WORKED," said Bassham, speaking of a self-developed regimen of mental training that he believes lifted him to gold from the silver he took in Munich. "Technically I'm no better than I was in 1972," he continued. "But mentally—now I'm standing on concrete; then I stood on sand."

Talk of stable footing is common in shooting, with its unique moments of stasis. "Our sport is controlled nonmovement," said Bassham. "We are shooting from 50 meters—over half a football field—at a bull's-eye three-quarters the size of a dime. If the angle of error at the point of the barrel is more than .005 of a millimeter [that is five one-thousandths], you drop into the next circle and lose a point. So we have to learn how to make everything stop. I stop my breathing. I stop my digestion by not eating for 12 hours before the competition. I train by running to keep my pulse around 60, so I have a full second between beats—I have gotten it lower, but found that the stroke-volume increased so much that each beat really jolted me. You do all of this and you have the technical control. But you have to have some years of experience in reading conditions: the wind, the mirage. Then you have the other 80% of the problem—the mind." Seldom has the 29-year-old Bassham had more on his mind than in last week's Olympic shoot.

The small-bore three-position calls for 40 shots each while prone, standing and kneeling. Each set of 40 is divided into four 10-shot series. The event began at 9:30 Wednesday morning at the L'Acadie range, across the St. Lawrence from Montreal, some 20 miles into the birch woods and Queen Anne's lace of the Quebec countryside. A long wooden roof shaded the shooters, its yellow and white striped canvas awning vibrating in the breeze. The only sound along the firing line besides the sporadic snapping of .22s was the soft crunching of gravel as spectators strolled from point to point, inspecting the unofficial results displayed over the shooters' heads in the manner of bowling scores. Occasionally, an onlooker's whisper rose to an indecorous level, and a policeman would raise his hand to get the offender's attention, then press a finger to his lips. Bassham quickly shot a 397 out of 400 points for prone, and walked down the line to watch his teammate, Margaret Murdock, 33, of Topeka, Kans., the first woman to represent the U.S. in Olympic shooting competition. A slower, more deliberate shooter, Murdock recorded 398 to tie for the early lead. Bassham went back to his position.

"You try not to get behind in the prone," said U.S. Team Manager Joe Berry. "You win with your standing and kneeling."

During the break between rounds, Murdock busied herself cleaning her first rifle (she would use a second for the rest of the match). A shambling figure in a faded orange sweat shirt and baggy jeans, with short graying hair curling around orange ear protectors and silver-rimmed glasses, she showed the beginnings of a double chin.

"She has never been one to do any physical training, and she's put on weight in the last couple of years," said her sister, Marie Alkire. "But Margaret has good control of the hold. She hasn't had a great deal of concentrated practice this year and we're concerned how she'll perform near the end."

She went on to describe how Murdock developed as a shooter. It began with her father, a Kansas state champion. "She had good fundamentals, as much as was known at the time," Alkire said. At Kansas State in the early '60s, Murdock was an All-America while competing on the men's team and was awarded her varsity letter, then asked not to embarrass the lettermen by actually wearing it. After receiving her degree in chemistry, she joined the WACs and was assigned to the marksmanship unit at Fort Benning, Ga., where she was coached by Colonel Bill Pullun, often called the world's finest rifle coach. "If she had gone anywhere else," said Alkire, "she'd have been discriminated against."

Now a nursing student at Washburn University in Topeka, Murdock plans to become an anesthetist, an appropriate calling for one dedicated to warding off trauma. "My emotional control is based on anticipation," she would say later. "I think out how I'm going to react, how I'm going to resist extraneous thoughts, how I'm going to deal with somebody coming up and telling me I'm behind or ahead. I prepare for all of this so the adrenaline doesn't go up and I stop thinking. One or two bad shots and you're out of it."

While Murdock seems naturally phlegmatic, other personalities have other methods. The 1972 champion, John Writer of Chicago, shoots very quickly, minimizing his time for errant thought. Bassham is an intense, garrulous man. "He points out how no matter what it looks like, you're shooting worse than he is," Murdock said with affection. "He's soothing himself."

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