Olympic shooter who overcame impairment

Collyn Loper is just a regular teen, except for being blind in one eye and a top trapshooter.

She leads an ordinary teenager's life, filled with Kiss concerts and new driving privileges. Her boyfriend plays in a band and recently got his lip pierced, much to her father's chagrin. She smears cherry-red nail polish on her fingers and toes, and spends way too much time on the phone with her best friend, Lauren.

Then there's that gun safe in the basement. The poster of gun-toting Annie Oakley in her room, and her intimate knowledge of Italian gunmakers.

Collyn Loper is not so ordinary after all. Since age 10, she's had a shotgun in her hands and dreams of the Olympics in her head. Now, seven years later, she's in Athens to compete as the youngest member of the United States' shooting team.

If her age doesn't give her away when she steps onto the range in the women's trap Monday, the "goofy glasses" will. The right lens of Collyn's shooting glasses is blacked out entirely. That's the eye that has been blind since birth.

"I've had people come up to me and ask, 'Where can I get sunglasses like that?' " she chuckles. "Other people ask me, 'Do you have an eye dominance problem?' I say, 'Yeah, a big one.' "

While it may seem like a major impediment in any sport, Collyn just shrugs it off. "They way I look at it, I'm equal to everyone else."

Actually, for most of her shooting career, she has been better than everyone else. Her achievements include a bronze medal at the Junior Olympics; a gold medal at the Pam Am Games; and a place on this summer's Olympic team by beating out an Army markswoman nearly twice her age.

After Collyn spent much of her childhood "running into things," her father, Brian, pondered the sports that required little depth perception. He also realized that his daughter could see things better when they were moving away from her. So one day when she was 8 years old, he took her into the backyard, showed her how to hold a BB gun with her left hand instead of her dominant right, and began throwing Frisbees into the air.

Amazingly, the pellets began pouncing off - and from that moment on, Collyn was by her dad's side whenever he would go to the shooting range. Soon she learned to handle a shotgun and was beating out many of the older men, including her own father.

"The first time she held a gun, she knew what to do. She could hold the gun, swing the gun. She had the form and ability," says Mr. Loper, himself an avid hunter and fisherman.

As she progressed, the two drove every weekend to Atlanta to practice at the now-closed Olympic range. There she caught the eye of a shooting coach and soon began traveling to competitions around the world - and winning them.

But she was fighting an uphill battle at school, where she is an honor student. Classmates didn't know what trapshooting was, and some thought she was shooting real "birds" (they're clay targets launched into the air). Moreover, teachers were skeptical of her missed classes, and the administration didn't take her sport seriously.

"Not until I won gold at the Pan Am Games did they say, 'Maybe this girl is serious,' " said Collyn, curled up on a basement couch in her suburban Birmingham home before leaving for Athens. "Now that I'm going to the Olympics, I think things will ease up at school."

But the misunderstanding about sport shooting is not confined to school walls, she says. "A lot of people don't understand what it is. If you tell them you hit 300 out of 325 birds, they think you killed 300 animals. But I guess I understand it. We are living in such a violent society, people don't know what to think when you mention guns."

For the outdoor-loving Lopers, though, shooting has been a way of life for generations. The family often spends Saturdays at the range when other families are "going on picnics or whatever," laughs Collyn.

While all the family has terrific aim, she says, Collyn thrives on competition. And there is plenty of that in Athens.

China is going to be a problem, says her coach, Lloyd Woodhouse. And Russia and the former Soviet-bloc countries will be tough as well. "But if she can shoot the way she has been shooting during training this last month and a half, she can win a gold medal," he says.

In addition, Coach Woodhouse says he doesn't see her blindness as a limiting factor in any way. What is more impressive to teammates, in fact, is her ability to shoot left-handed.

"A lot of shooters close one eye to aim. What is amazing to me is that Collyn switched to being left-handed," says Kim Rhode, her teammate and roommate in Athens. "That is almost impossible to do."

Rhode is a good sounding board for Collyn. At age 16, she was the youngest shooter in the history of the US team. She is now competing in her third Olympics. "The neat thing about shooting is that it doesn't matter how big or how old you are," Rhode says. "It's one of those games where everyone's on an equal playing field."

Rhode still keeps up a strict training schedule, even while majoring in veterinary medicine at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. But Collyn isn't sure that's what she wants to do.

College is definitely in her future. Her goal is to get into Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and major in chemistry so she can help cure hereditary diseases, such as the one linked to her blindness.

But she's not sure she wants to continue training so intensely after these Games. "Last year, I lost a lot of days of school to training," says Collyn.

But for now, she's entirely focused on the Olympics - and that BMW her dad promised her for making the team (though she's been known to run old ladies off the road while getting used to driving with one eye).

As Collyn sat in her basement using words like "awesome" and "spastic" to describe everything from Sunday school to the prom, it was easy to forget that she is one of the world's best trapshooters.

"She's just your average teenager. She loves fishing and swimming and is a little goofy at times," says Rhode. "She likes to have fun and shoot the heck out of targets. The boys better beware."

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