One thing Lucas Kozeniesky loves about the sport of shooting is that anyone of any size or background can pick it up. “There’s no physical or genetic thing that makes you better at pulling a trigger or pointing a gun,” he says.
That may be true, but for Kozeniesky himself, years of training and dedication to the sport have led him to a pinnacle few athletes ever reach — qualification for his second Olympic Games.
Eleven years after first learning the sport at a Northern Virginia high school, Kozeniesky hopes to be gunning for gold later this year at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Kozeniesky, 24, was one of the first shooters to earn a Team USA roster spot last month following the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Air Rifle. Rifle events are scored on how close an athlete’s shots come to the pen tip-sized center of the target, measured down to tenths of a millimeter. In men’s air rifle, Kozeniesky has to fire 60 shots within a time limit from a fixed position 10 meters away.
He held the leading accumulated score for qualification after Day 1 of the final stage — then tied the world record of 633.5 points on the second and final day of the trials.
After a poor showing at a different trial in October, Kozeniesky decided he needed to change his approach and take care of his body, mind and soul, “instead of really hammering and shooting a lot.”
“That ended up being the best thing I could have done to get me to where I am right now,” he said.
Besides men’s air rifle, Kozeniesky will also compete in mixed team rifle in Tokyo, new to the Olympics in 2020.
Kozeniesky only picked up the sport in the first place once he arrived in Virginia, the new kid in town at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County. His father Craig Kozeniesky served in the Marine Corps and was assigned to the Pentagon just as he was entering high school. The freshman was encouraged by his parents to take up an activity, and before long he heard about the school’s rifle team on the morning announcements.
Preparing to join the team included three weeks of gun safety briefings held at 6 a.m. at the NRA headquarters in Fairfax. Kozeniesky’s father drove him to the meetings, and his long path to becoming an elite shooter began.
When Kozeniesky first qualified for the U.S. junior national team in 2014, he said it “really changed my paradigm” of how far he could go in the sport.
“OK, I’m good where I am right now,” he thought, “but there’s this whole other world of opportunity out there.”
A late qualifier for the 2016 Olympics, Kozeniesky was blown away by the atmosphere in Rio de Janeiro. He found the opening ceremony “awesome,” the Olympic Village unique — and his competition stiff. He finished 21st in the men’s air rifle event.
“When the match actually started, I came to terms with, like, ‘OK, I didn’t prepare correctly for this. So I’m going to do the best I can,’” Kozeniesky said. “And by the time that I finished the match and I went to go walk to meet my family, I was like, ‘Yep, I’m going to go for the next quad (to qualify for 2020).’ That was already a decision I made by the time I met up with my parents and my wife.”
An American has never won an Olympic medal in men’s air rifle, something Kozeniesky hopes to change in Tokyo. After he took gold at the 2019 Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, he might be a good bet.
Kozeniesky came out on top in Peru despite an awful sequence of setbacks, from a canceled flight to a kidney infection to a gun malfunction. He even had some of his equipment confiscated by the TSA before his flight, mainly something called a SCATT trainer worth a few thousand dollars that provides shooters feedback data like shot speed and trace length.
“Ninety-nine out of 100 times, TSA wouldn’t do anything with this box,” Kozeniesky said. “But they had the slip in there and they took the device from me. I had earmuffs taken and I had some other small miscellaneous tools and stuff that were taken.”
Indeed, traveling with shooting equipment is far different than traveling with a tennis racquet and sneakers. Kozeniesky said a lot of forethought and planning must be put into how his and his peers’ equipment gets transported around the world for competitions. There’s a certain stigma, too, about the sport due to the divisiveness of gun culture and the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S.
“As far as what I’ve received, it’s actually gotten better over the last few years,” Kozeniesky said. “When I made the Olympic team in 2014 I got a little bit of huff and puff from people, just through social media or whatever. But yeah, it is there, and largely due to misunderstanding of what (the sport) actually is … The whole goal is discipline and precision and accuracy.”
And Kozeniesky has found a way to give back to the sport and grow it in the U.S.
He and his wife Blair met in high school and still spend plenty of time in Fairfax County, where Blair’s family lives, but the couple are based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. At one point, a resident program Kozeniesky took part in was cut, hurting his financial stability.
But he was already helping some younger shooters on the side with remote personal training. He decided it was an opportune time to make that his daily job, and founded his shooting consulting business, Team Winning Solutions.
“When the resident program went away, I thought, ‘OK, I’m actually gonna commit to doing this online consultation thing and so I can train more,’” Kozeniesky said. “It began with this mission to make money and to support myself and my wife. But what it turned into was this connection to the grassroots in the country that really kind of shaped who I am as a shooter and a person.”
He has evidence that the sport is growing: In the 2016 Olympic qualifying cycle, there were no air gun shooters under 21 years old in the final stage of trials. Four years later, he said, half the Olympic trial finalists were younger than 21.
“I get to be part of this culture change in the nation where it’s, ‘OK, we’re going to start pushing to get more competitive people so that they can develop the right way and then go overseas and be successful,” he said.