Straight Shooter

When Mindy Miles’ rifle inadvertently fired at the 2016 NCAA championships, she didn’t hesitate to call a penalty on herself

Story by Greg Johnson
Photos by Jamie Schwaberow

Mindy Miles has a special bond with her dad, Chip.

No one ever would have known.

When Mindy Miles’ smallbore rifle misfired at the 2016 NCAA National Collegiate Rifle Championships in March in Akron, Ohio, no one else saw it. No one else knew. Not the range officer, not her teammates, not her competitors nor any coaches. Not even the man who taught her how to shoot: her dad, who had traveled from Weatherford, Texas, to watch the Texas Christian University sophomore shoot in the biggest event of the rifle season.

It was the first day of competition in the smallbore event, in which she was one of 20 competitors, each standing side by side, who have 105 minutes to take 20 shots from three different positions: prone, kneeling and standing. With more than 1,000 shots fired over a period of less than two hours, no one was aware that Miles’ rifle had fired inadvertently. No one ever would have known that her round missed the target completely.

Mindy had been on pace to shoot a 590 — which would have been, at the time, a personal best for her in smallbore and only 10 points shy of a perfect score of 600. Then she closed the bolt on her rifle. She felt a recoil — so slight that she wondered if it was just a twitch of her own body. But when she opened the bolt and saw the whisper of smoke wafting from it, she knew.

And then, she raised her hand, signaling the range official to come over.

Mindy Miles has been hunting and fishing with her dad since she was old enough to stay quiet in the woods. Submitted by Chip Miles

Mindy grew up in Weatherford, Texas, about 30 miles from the TCU campus in Fort Worth. When she was about 2 and could sit without making noise that might drive away prey, her dad brought the girl along on hunting trips. She would join her older sister, Caroline, who would eventually lose interest in the sport. Mindy continued hunting, even though her enthusiasm sometimes waned.

Their trips often took them miles from home, creating plenty of bonding time.

“I was doing it to make my dad happy, ... but I didn’t really like it a whole lot,” Mindy says. “I started getting better and better. I was getting there, and my dad pushed me into more high-level competitions, which is how I was able to shoot well enough to get into college.”

Chip Miles, who shot air pistols at Texas A&M University in his undergraduate days, says he started to realize his daughter’s potential in the sport when she was in junior high. She began to practice in what the family calls its “shop,” an outbuilding on the back of their property in Weatherford. Eventually, he built an addition to the shop, which contains heavy machinery like milling machines and a metal lathe that he uses to help customize his daughter’s rifles.

He also added a shooting lane to the building and rigged a mechanical system where the targets can be set and retrieved. He still has hundreds of the targets his daughter used in middle school and beyond.

“That is when we started looking at the possibility of her shooting in college,” says Chip, now an operations manager at a company that builds commercial refrigerators. “She got me into coaching the 4-H group. She showed some aptitude quickly.”

In high school, Mindy won Texas State Junior Olympic championships in air rifle in 2012 and 2013 and in smallbore in 2013. Internationally, she also was a Junior Olympic silver medalist in air rifle and bronze medalist in smallbore in 2013.

The trips they took to various competitions helped the father-daughter bond grow stronger.

Rifle 101

The participants
Rifle is a coed sport where women and men compete directly against each other. A team can consist of all women, all men or a mix of the two. The championship began in 1980.

The competition
Each team has a maximum of five shooters whose scores count in two disciplines (air rifle and smallbore). The maximum a competitor can score on a single shot is 10 points for hitting the dot in the center of the target that is the size of a period at the end of a sentence. A perfect score in either discipline is 600.

Each of the five scores are recorded in both disciplines and the team with the highest combined total of points wins the match.

Air rifle
• TIME: 15 minutes practice; 75 minutes to shoot all shots
• DISTANCE: 33 feet

• TIME: 15 minutes practice; 105 minutes to shoot all shots
• SHOTS/SHOOTING POSITION: 20/prone; 20/kneeling; 20/standing
• DISTANCE: 50 feet

Rifle student-athletes wear custom-made shooting trousers and shooting jackets that consist of canvas or leather. The jackets and trousers have padding to provide support for the shooter. The padding also helps shooters remain stable when they are firing at the target from prone, kneeling and standing positions. Competitors also wear shooting boots that have the toe end and the heel of the boot cut flat to provide a stable base from which to shoot.

“When I was shooting in junior competitions, we would find activities to do on the way there,” she says. “We would stop and go zip lining, kayaking, fishing or rapids. I’ve spent so many hours in the car with my dad.”

All the success made her one of the top recruits in the country. Since Mindy lived about 30 minutes from TCU, she knew everyone assumed she would become a member of the Horned Frogs team. But she wasn’t so sure. So she took all her allowed college visits — to TCU, the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, the University of Mississippi, West Virginia University and the University of Kentucky.

“I never walked onto any campus and thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is where I was meant to be,’” Mindy says of the campus of 8,500 undergraduates. “I just never had that moment. I had a pros-and-cons list about 30 or 40 items long. TCU came out on top by far.”

That decision was great news for TCU coach Karen Monez, who led the Horned Frogs to the 2010 and 2012 NCAA titles.

“It was almost relief when she made the choice to come here,” Monez says. “She didn’t let on until she actually told me that TCU was her No. 1 choice. Of course, I was excited. I felt the small-school environment was where she would thrive the best academically.”

And it was great news for Chip. The decision meant he and his daughter could still go on fishing and hunting trips together.

“I liked her being close to home,” he says. “It has been eye-opening to see how much time she spends on school and the preparation it takes to compete in her sport. It is very impressive what the athlete must do to have success at both.”

Mindy has been one of TCU’s top shooters since she arrived on campus. In February of her freshman season, she recorded a 600 in air rifle, which was only the fifth perfect score in NCAA history that dates to the 1979-80
season. She hopes to become a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2020.

In the classroom, Mindy is a junior majoring in strategic communications that emphasizes public relations and advertising with a minor in business.

Coaching isn’t allowed during competition, so on the first day of the 2016 NCAA Rifle Championships, Monez was left to wonder why Mindy was conferring with a range official. So was Chip, who was talking with another TCU parent when he noticed the discussion.

“All I could tell was that there was a lot of whispering going on,” he says. “I looked at one of Mindy’s friends, who was in the stands, and she mouthed, ‘The last shot sounded funny.’ I just thought, ‘Oh, no, that can’t be good.’”

On the cover

A Lesson in Rifle

Since Champion magazine debuted in January 2008, one of the primary goals of the publication has been to show the diversity that exists in the NCAA at all levels.

This issue’s cover story, about Mindy Miles of Texas Christian University, is the first to feature a rifle competitor on the front of the magazine. Miles was chosen for the cover because of an act of sportsmanship she displayed at the 2016 National Collegiate Rifle Championships.

The story’s writer, Champion Associate Editor Greg Johnson, was a sports reporter for 14 years before joining the NCAA staff in 2004. During his time as a newspaper sportswriter in Colorado, and St. Paul, Minnesota, he covered college sports at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and professional teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer. He covered some high school sports, and even covered a rodeo once.

His sports knowledge is broad. But even Johnson had never covered the sport of rifle.

The Champion crew that accompanied Johnson to Fort Worth, Texas — Champion Creative Director Arnel Reynon, Director of Photography Jamie Schwaberow and video producers Cam Schuh and Jessica McGee — looked forward to learning about a sport none of them knew much about.

From Miles and her coaches, the Champion staff learned the patience required to be successful in rifle. Depending on whether competitors are shooting at the target from a standing, kneeling or prone position, they must ensure their posture is correct, their breathing under control and their rifle in the right position.

The crew also learned about the importance of the shooting trousers and shooting jackets participants wear during competitions. The trousers and jackets, made of canvas or leather with padding, provide support for the shooter. They are custom-fitted, requiring competitors to maintain their weight. Most conditioning for student-athletes who compete in rifle focuses on core training.

Besides photographing Miles at the TCU Rifle Range and around campus, the crew also headed to Miles’ home in Weatherford, Texas, about 30 miles from Fort Worth, to meet her father, Chip, and see the practice facility he built for her when her shooting talent was beginning to emerge.

It took Champion nine years to feature a rifle student-athlete on the cover. But learning the sport from a woman who grew up perfecting not only her shooting but also her sportsmanship in competition made it worth the wait.

– Greg Johnson

His daughter knew alerting the range official most likely wasn’t going to have a positive outcome.

“I just couldn’t imagine not taking responsibility for it,” Mindy says. “That isn’t something that’s a part of my standards. I want to be a true athlete. And being a true athlete means taking responsibility and having high morals.”

The range officials talked over the matter and ruled the shot would have to be recorded as a zero. It was a crushing development — she had been regularly scoring 10s during the prone and kneeling portions in smallbore, the weaker of the three shooting disciplines for her.

She also was off to a strong start in the standing position, and the misplaced shot occurred on the ninth of her 20 allotted shot attempts in that position.

“I’m known for my composure when I’m on the line, but I was a mess after I knew it would be counted as a zero,” she says. “I just told myself, ‘Mindy, you messed up. Keep it together. Finish strong, and finish proud,’” she recalls.
She got back into her routine and scored a 10 on nine of her last 10 shots. When she left the shooting line, she was greeted by her teammates and coaching staff, who offered support and praise for the trying situation Mindy had endured.

“That part of the day was very impressive, and the sign of a true champion,” Monez says. “It isn’t always easy to do what is right. I’m very proud of her for having integrity. I want everyone on my team to be proud of who they are and what they do.”

Chip consoled his daughter after she finished the smallbore event. He had a mixture of emotions as he hugged her tight.

“As a parent, I was thinking that this just had to be killing her,” he recalls. “Her attitude was, ‘Something happened, and I did what I am supposed to do.’ I am incredibly proud of her because there was a point when she had a decision to make, and she made the right one.”

The next day, the teams shot the air rifle portion of the event. When all the scores were tallied, West Virginia took home the national championship with a score of 4,703. TCU finished as the runner-up with 4,694.

TCU’s total in the final was its average score over 12 matches last season, a goal Monez set for her squad when the competition began. She says her philosophy is for her team to steadily raise that average during the season to the point it peaks heading into the NCAA championships.

Monez says she doesn’t want her shooters to feel they must perform beyond their capabilities, and cause them to put more pressure on themselves. If another team shoots better, then the Horned Frogs will tip their visors and congratulate the other team.

Mindy and Chip Miles each have a love for the outdoors.

No one will ever know whether the final nine-point difference in the team standings would have changed in TCU’s favor had the misplaced shot in smallbore not occurred. All that is known is Mindy did the right thing.

“We probably would have had another 10 points considering how good Mindy was shooting that day,” Monez says. “Mindy took it all in stride. She is still striving to be the best she can be. .... That defines what she is all about more than that one incident.”

Months have now passed, and Mindy is off to a great start in the 2016-17 season. In a dual match Nov. 13 against the U.S. Air Force Academy, Mindy shot a personal-best 591 in smallbore, using a new rifle she acquired that has been customized by her father. She retired her previous smallbore rifle — the one she was using during the misfire at the national championships. “It wasn’t just because of what happened at the NCAAs,” she says. “A newer version of the gun came out.”

Mindy has put last year’s national championships behind her — although she did earn the 2016 NCAA Sportsmanship Award because of her momentous decision that day. Another example of how well she’s doing this season came Oct. 8 in a dual match against the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She shot a 599 ­— only one point shy of recording the second perfect 600 of her NCAA career.

And now Mindy is finding her reputation for sportsmanship now equals her marksmanship.

“From what people tell me, a lot of people wouldn’t have owned up to what happened last year at the NCAA championships,” she says. “The whole thing seems to have brought me up in their eyes.”

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