In the late 1990s, one of the most sought-after high school recruits in the nation didn’t play basketball or football. Instead, he was a marksman from Mount Holly, New Jersey, who had already set a junior world record as a 16-year-old in the 50-meter rifle three-position event.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Kentucky and West Virginia University were among the top rifle programs in the country, and each brought Matt Emmons to campus for an official visit. Only one, however, captivated the young man who would go on to become the most decorated shooter in NCAA Rifle Championships history.
“I can’t say it was a very difficult decision,” Emmons says. “On just about every account, Alaska fit. It was a place where I was going to go and grow as an athlete and grow as a person. It’s probably one of the smartest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Emmons made an immediate impact in his freshman season as his scoring record in the smallbore standing position discipline helped the Nanooks win the trophy in 2000, the second in a stretch of six consecutive national titles (1999-2004). He went on to become the only individual to win a national championship three times in the same event (smallbore in 2001, 2002 and 2003), and his total of four individual titles is also unprecedented.
Taken together, those accomplishments are an impressive feat – but coupled with the fact that Emmons and Alaska Fairbanks achieved all of them under three different coaches during Emmons’ undergraduate years makes them even more impressive.
“I was fortunate to be part of a good team,” Emmons says. “Not just in results, but in the way we worked together. The way we managed it as a team and the leadership we had was extremely well-done.”
Emmons’ status as the top collegiate shooter in the country was bolstered by his growing international accolades. After winning his third national championship in March 2002, he went on to win the 50-meter rifle three positions at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup Final in Munich, Germany, five months later.
After leading Alaska Fairbanks to the championship in 2003, Emmons won his first of three Olympic medals by earning the gold in the 50-meter rifle prone in 2004 in Athens, Greece. He also won silver in Beijing, bronze in London and has already qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes his NCAA experience will continue to pay dividends.
“The NCAA championships is one of the best competitions you can shoot to prepare yourself for the Olympic Games,” Emmons says. “It’s just something you don’t get a chance to experience anywhere else. Even the foreign athletes, they don’t really have anything like them. I could go on for an hour about the things I draw on almost every day that I gained from the college experience.”
Emmons also took advantage of his educational opportunities by earning an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in accounting from Alaska Fairbanks and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he began classes one day after returning from Athens with his gold medal.
Emmons, his wife, Katerina – herself a three-time Olympic shooting medalist – and their three children are now based in her native Czech Republic, where Emmons continues to train and coach.
“I’m trying to get more Europeans to go to the U.S. to go to school,” Emmons says. “Take an individual sport and put it in a team concept, and you get to be a part of something bigger than what you’re doing. If someone wins an individual championship, that’s great. But if you win the team championship, that is a big deal. That’s something you won’t get anywhere else in this sport.”