A switch in style for silver shooter Rooney
A slump in form and confidence left Olympic silver medallist shooter Natalie Rooney struggling, but she tells David Leggat she's back on track with her sights trained on gold in Tokyo.
Ask Natalie Rooney how she’s feeling about her prospects of a second Olympic trap shooting medal in Tokyo next year, and the answer will be positive.
But if the same question had been posed to her a year ago, she might even have doubted she’d still be in the game.
Such are the highs and lows in an individual sport, where the margins between success and being back in the pack can be desperately slim.
Back in Rio in 2016, Rooney was briefly the toast of New Zealand - our first medal winner of the Olympic Games (and a hugely surprising one at that) - when she won silver.
It could have been even better, but for a lapse in the final shoot-off when she was two shots clear, and needing just a handful of accurate shots to win the gold. But Australian Catherine Skinner won by a single shot, 12-11, in the best-of-15 decider.
Much has happened to the Timaru shooter in the interim. There was the brief glare of unexpected celebrity, and some strong follow-up form – winning the World Cup final in October 2016 in Italy, coming second in the World Cup series in Mexico and then being ranked world No.1.
Then came a slump, which the 31-year-old reckons lasted two-and-a-half years from the end of 2017.
There were times then when the enjoyment wasn’t there. She had some serious soul-searching to do.
But now, with her confidence regained, her self-belief is back in place, thanks to a significant change in her technique.
But hang on. Why change a technique which, for some time, seemed to be working pretty well?
“I questioned it as well, but the style I had didn’t suit every layout I go to in the world,” Rooney says.
“The one thing I want is to be the most consistent shooter and perform everywhere I go. Changing my style will in future make me a better shooter. That’s how I look at it.’’
The signs are encouraging too. Rooney has rediscovered her touch this year, but in patches; one bad day can ruin an entire result (in trap shooting, competitors fire in rounds of 25, over multiple days - moving positions, or stations, on the range).
So let’s talk technical changes.
When Rooney won her silver in Rio, she was using a 'high gun' method, where she would look through the gun to the target as it came out of the trap. Then she wouldn’t move until after the target had passed her barrels.
At some stations, the target would come out half a metre to the left or right, and Rooney wasn’t picking up those targets - “and that would rush or panic me” as she tried to catch up.
Now she holds what’s known as a 'low gun' position, where she keeps the gun trained just below the marker on the trap, from where the target flies out fast, and with her eyes above the gun.
“It taken a bit to get used to and took a while to get used to figuring out how and when I’m meant to move,’’ she says.
Her biggest issues were with what’s known as a low 45-degree right-hander off any station. That is, when she has to swing her gun to her right.
“I’d always had an issue with that target. Now I’m a lot more comfortable because I’m seeing it a lot better,” she says.
It would come out half a metre to the right (of where she was expecting it). “And I would miss it coming out… it looks so fast and you’re like ‘oh shit’,” she laughs. “Now I can see it perfectly and move towards it calm and controlled.”
It wasn’t easy. Rooney talks frankly about the mental stresses of having to rebuild her technique and when you do that nothing comes easily.
“That took a toll. It didn’t happen for me straight away. It’s taken me a long time to build myself back up to knowing I am good enough and can perform at that level,” she says.
All top athletes have a key figure in their support team to whom they turn when things are bleak. For Rooney, it’s her Italian coach Andrea Miotti, with whom she’s worked for six years.
Rooney reckons his most important contribution was teaching her to have control on the range.
So we’re talking mental or technical?
“More technical. A lot of time you’re out there on your own and no one knows what’s going through your brain, except you,” Rooney says.
“If things are technically not going right, mentally you can lose it because you don’t know what’s going wrong.
“To be able to turn round and see Andrea, and he can tell me what I’m doing wrong, that can reset me both technically and mentally.”
Rooney’s success in Rio brought her high performance funding, which isn’t usually awarded to the sport as a whole. She’s received $125,000 in each of the last three years.
It sounds distinctly handy, and you’d rather have it than not. But out of that comes travel costs – Rooney has been overseas more than half of each year – accommodation and paying for Miotti. Good coaches don’t come cheap.
She’s grateful for her father Gary’s financial support, even though she’d rather not have to make those calls.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Rooney says. “I definitely still wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without him. I try not to ask him for anything, but that doesn’t always work out.”
Rooney has been a full-time shooter since 2017 and if you think it’s all beer and skittles travelling the globe with a wedge of cash in the bank account, think again.
“It is tough,” she says. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Italy, and I’ve found it really difficult.
“I usually book an apartment so I can do my own cooking, but I’m in a remote area [near Pescara on the Adriatic Coast] where no one speaks English and I’m by myself all the time.
“It’s not as if I can just pick up the phone and call someone, because the time difference is so different. It’s pretty lonely.”
Rooney qualified for Tokyo at the Oceania champs in Sydney, which was her last chance to nab a ticket to the Games.
She’s off to the Australian nationals in Newcastle next month, has a World Cup in Cyprus in March, then the Olympic test event in Tokyo in April.
Rooney has been studying this year when she can, towards a marketing certificate from the Open Polytechnic. But assignments are often due when she’s in competition, so that has its challenges too.
As for Tokyo, she will know, and have competed regularly, against every other shooter in the field. There won’t be any surprises.
But her aim is to have herself in the best possible position to back up her Rio result, and that starts with her build-up.
“It’s about making sure I’m in the best position to hop on that podium again,” she says.
Only one other New Zealand shooter has won an Olympic medal - Christchurch’s Ian Ballinger in the smallbore at Mexico City in 1968.
If Rooney can snag another medal it will place her in fresh territory in the New Zealand Olympic pantheon.
Having dug her way out of a dark place, only a fool would write off her chances of doing just that.