SI Vault
Virginia Kraft
August 08, 1977
Elgin Gates, 54, likes nothing better than to take on the cocky young marksmen of the military. Next week he goes at it again in an attempt to score a unique triple at trapshooting's big blowout
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August 08, 1977

If You Call Him Old Folks, Be Prepared To Duck

Elgin Gates, 54, likes nothing better than to take on the cocky young marksmen of the military. Next week he goes at it again in an attempt to score a unique triple at trapshooting's big blowout

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"But the racing game is a youth game," he says. "It's for instant reflexes and quick responses. The sound of a propeller under water is about four times louder than above. The sound of 30 or 40 of them coming at you when you've turned over is one you don't forget. I decided the time to quit was when I was on top."

Gates stopped racing with his health and titles intact and his eye on another sport: big-game hunting. Besides silver and gold loving cups, he had already begun adding trophies of another kind to the mansion at Newport Beach, Calif. that his outboard business had built. Growing up in the Depression West where a deer in the larder was often the difference between going hungry and not, Gates was not new to hunting. He had followed his brother and father afield almost as soon as he was old enough to walk. But it was not until 1955 that his interest shifted from meat hunting to trophy hunting and he made a safari to Kenya. In the subsequent 10 years he became one of the best-known big-game hunters in the world, putting more than 200 entries into the African, Asian and American record books and in 1960 winning the Weatherby award, the most esteemed in hunting.

In 1959 he was the first U.S. sportsman since the American Museum of Natural History's Morden and Clark Expedition 30 years earlier to collect the rare Ovis poli sheep. It was a formidable hunt involving some 400 miles of travel on foot and yak, the loss of 35 pounds from his already lean 6' 1", 185-pound frame and a lung-racking passage over a 20,800-foot pass in the mountains of the Himalayas.

"I was taking folic acid pills and vitamin B[2], which had been given me by a doctor who claimed they would make my red corpuscles more receptive to picking up oxygen," Gates recalls. "Suddenly nothing seemed to work. I'd take a step, then breathe three or four times. My chest felt as if it were in a vise. I thought I was running out of gas. Then I pulled out my altimeter and saw that it read 20,800 feet. I shook it a few times and the reading stayed the same. I was stunned by the height. For me the wild sheep of the world have always been the most challenging of all game, but taking this particular sheep was the No. 1 hunting experience of my life."

The Ovis poli and some 145 other trophies collected on his 35 safaris to various parts of the world literally filled the Newport Beach mansion. There were full-mounted antelopes, a tableau of lions, wall-to-wall zebra-skin carpeting in the den, several sets of elephant tusks and a full-mounted elephant head. Towering over all the other trophy specimens was a 10-foot polar bear.

When Gates retired from the outboard-motor business and moved back to Needles in 1965 he sold the Newport Beach house to John Wayne, who still lives there, and donated his trophy collection to the Omaha Zoological Society, where it is currently on display.

"I had collected everything I considered worthwhile," he says, "and I had seen the great hunting grounds of the world when they were at their best. Nothing ever really grabbed the eye like Kenya. But by the mid-1960s big-game hunting was running out." Gates has made only one safari back to Kenya, a sentimental journey in 1973, but by and large hunting, like boat racing, has now become part of his past.

"I knew I was ready for another sport," Gates says. "The woods are full of one-sport athletes—athletes who get bitter when their sport wears out, and who never find another one to take its place. I've been fortunate. When I left boat racing I was 35 and I just did not have the reflexes of an 18-or 19-year-old. It was the right time to get out. I stopped hunting because there was really nothing left. I had taken the best. When I moved back to Needles I got into trapshooting, and it was the most natural thing in the world for me to try for the top.

"There are some people who enjoy any game just for the fun of competing and being there, but I can't do anything halfway. If I do something, I do it to win. I want to do it better than anyone else. Still, only a fool sets unrealistic goals. When I started shooting trap my first goal was to break 100 straight. My next was to make the All-America team. At my age that was considered to be quite a feat. Then I made both the International and National All-America teams twice in a row. I also won 18 national championships in five countries and set a world doubles record.

"When I tried for the International title again last year, it was to see if I could win it twice because nobody had ever done so. That's the kind of challenge I like. But an athlete has to recognize his physical limitations. In 1971 I shot all the events at the Grand—2,000 targets. Near the end of it, I was shot out. Last year I knew if I shot any preliminary events, I'd wear myself out for the International, so I saved everything I had for that event. It was worth it.

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