Matt Emmons: Pursuing Stillness

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Tracy Golmont observes as Matt Emmons tries out his new orthotics.
Tracy Golmont observes as Matt Emmons tries out his new orthotics.

Olympian Matt Emmons, who at 27 years old ranks among the elite rifle shooters in the world, seeks something unusual in the world of sport: stillness. Stillness broken only by the squeeze of his finger on the trigger. Most of the time, he successfully puts every fidget on hold. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, he won gold in the prone competition; in Beijing he won the silver in the same event. But at both Olympics, he also demonstrated that stillness is rarely an absolute. He lost the three-position event twice due to quirky lapses in motionless focus.

Emmons' quest for near-perfect stillness continues. Some elements depend on his ability to train his breathing and adjust his stance. But what nature does not provide, he thinks that technology might.

It's All in the Stance

Emmons builds his shooting position "step by step. It's like with golf,' he says. "You start with placing your feet. For standing rifle shooting, your feet should be in line with the target. Based on your anatomy, your toes might turn in or out a little. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart. Both my wife and I use a little wider stance."

So far, so familiar. A hunting stance. But the next step requires the shooter to shift 60 percent of his or her weight to the front leg, an imbalance that can eventually cause discomfort in the lower calf.

"Sometimes I have had to stop shooting and take my boot off and stretch," Emmons says.

Once the feet and legs are lined up with the hip pointed at the target, it is time to set the elbow on the hipbone.

"I put mine a little above the hip in that little pocket there," Emmons says. "The front arm should now be perpendicular to the ground. Then you arch your back to bend a little away from the target. It is important that your rifle be over your hip and over your feet for maximum stability. Remember, you're holding a 15-pound gun."

Legs, hips, and arms lined up, the shooter places the stock of the rifle between the deltoid and the biceps.

"I try to keep my shoulders on the same plane as my hips although I have to open up a little bit to the target," Emmons says. "It's important to keep your head even and not tilted. You want to maintain your equilibrium, and that's in the ears."

Given the fact that the stability of the stance begins with the feet, and given that even the slightest improvement in that stability can mean the difference between winning and losing, Emmons saw an opportunity to sharpen his competitive edge with orthotics.

Tracy Golmont observes as Matt Emmons tries out his new orthotics.

"I love to run, but years ago I thought I might have to quit because my knees hurt," he says. "A friend said, 'It's your feet....' Sure enough, I got fitted with orthotics and the pain went away. So I have had the idea in my mind that since stability for shooting starts with the feet, maybe orthotics could improve it."

One of the physical therapists on the Olympic team suggested that Emmons contact pedorthist Tracy Golmont at Brace & Boot Orthopedics, Columbia, South Carolina.

"I had no special knowledge of shooting," Golmont says. "But I do have special insight working with the foot. We agreed that it would be a good idea for him to come to Columbia, where I had access to my well-equipped, state-of-the-art laboratory. There I could make a good assessment on the spot."

Before Golmont met with Emmons, he dissected a regulation shooting boot to see what he was working with. From a distance, the boot looks something like an old-fashioned cross-country ski boot. The toe is square, and the foot bed is flat and rigid for maximum support. The upper part of the boot is designed to minimize the torque that allows the ankle to twist over the foot. The goal is to eliminate as much movement as possible.

"I learned that there are rules for everything in this sport: the boots, the pants, the jacket are all regulated for their flexibility and weight," Golmont says. "The parameters were extremely tight. We had no leeway for what the outside of the boot could look like in terms of its shape and dimensions, but the inside was wide open for adjustment."

Because pedorthists do not commonly work with footwear not made for walking, Golmont began his investigation by studying the function of the boot.

"The stance does not look comfortable," Golmont says. "In fact, it doesn't look like a biomechanical possibility. The shooters lock up the body for stability and seem to be hanging there on the tendon and ligament structure. They have to maintain the stance for almost two hours in some events."

Not Your Ordinary Orthotic

Ordinarily, Golmont explains, he creates orthotics to correct a biomechanical problem or to optimize lower-limb biomechanics. In this case, he was looking to both accommodate and stabilize a sport-specific posture. For that, he began by evaluating Emmons' stance and taking impressions of his feet to identify weight-bearing areas.

"Typically, I am working with the dynamic positioning of the foot. In Mart's case, what we designed is not at all useful for walking around," he says. "We were concerned with stability and comfort over time."

Golmont's initial creation for Emmons' boot was made of seven different materials of varying durometers.

"The materials we use either support or divert pressure in various parts of the foot," he says. "In Matt's case, there is very little need to absorb pressure. We want to support weight and create comfort."

Golmont acknowledges that in his years as a pedorthist, the request to create an orthotic for an Olympic marksman has been one of his most challenging. And a little scary, too.

"I didn't want to do anything to create a problem," he says. "I didn't want to be the guy who messed up his competitive edge."

As of now, the orthotics for Emmons' shooting boots are a work in progress.

"We didn't have time to really test them before the Olympics," Emmons says. "So I would say that we are in the R&D phase. But I have plenty of time to work on the idea. I put in about 40 days of competition a year, and people in my sport can have extremely long careers. I could go to the Olympics three more times if I can stay motivated."

It is true that Emmons has been at this sport for a long time. He began competitive shooting at 14 when his father was in charge of the shooting range at a military base in New Jersey.

"Paul Adamowski was an FBI firearms instructor and suggested I take up the sport because there were college scholarships available if I was good," Emmons says. "He coached me. In 1997, I made the national junior team. I was 16."

His skills also got him a scholarship at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As a Nanook from 1999-2003, Emmons won four individual NCAA championships and was a key member of four straight national championship teams. This September, he became one of four in the inaugural class inducted into the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanook Hall of Fame.

Misses Target, Gets Girl

Although Emmons' saga includes two breathtaking losses for Olympic gold, he considers himself a lucky man. After all, how many shooters miss the target but still get the girl? Emmons was in the lead during the 50-meter three-position rifle final in Athens, but then lost his chance for a medal by hitting the wrong target on his last shot. The next evening, a shooter he knew from the Czech Republic came up to him to tell him how much she admired his poise. Bull's eye. Two years later, Emmons and Katerina Kurkova were married and by 2008 had collected between them two gold and three silver Olympic medals in two Olympic Games. As Emmons says, "It's all in the stance."

Jane Albritton is president of Tiger Enterprises, Writing Consultants. She is a contributing writer for the Northern Colorado Business Report and Edibles Front Range. She is also an editor for a 50th-anniversary collection of Peace Corps stories. She can be reached atwww.peacecorpsat50.org

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