By John Marshall
AP Sports Writer
Matt Emmons sat in a beer garden near the shooting range trying to wash away one of the biggest gaffes in Olympic history when he felt a tap on the shoulder.
Looking up, he saw Czech shooter Katerina Kurkova and her father, there to offer condolences and express admiration for how he handled himself after failing on sport’s biggest stage. They gave him a four-leaf clover keychain, wished him luck in the future and walked away.
The pair ran into each other a few more times over the next year or so, their interactions expanding, the relationship growing. They decided to start dating. Three years later, they married.
From darkness, Emmons had found a light.
“Had I not made that mistake, maybe I retire from shooting, maybe I don’t marry Katy,” Emmons said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Emmons started his career with a gold medal in prone rifle as a 23-year-old at the 2004 Athens Olympics, doing it with a borrowed rifle after his was sabotaged. He picked up medals at the next two Olympics and is one of the favorites in 50-meter three-position at the Rio Games next month after setting a world record in three-position rifle this year.
Emmons also has a pair of Olympic-sized gaffes on his resume.
The first came at Athens, where Emmons needed only a mediocre score on his final shot in three-position to earn his second gold of the games. Instead, he shot at the target next to him — called cross firing — and received no score at all, dropping him from gold to eighth in an instant.
That led to meeting his future wife, but misfortune struck again at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in the same event, no less.
Emmons had another large lead heading into his final shot, mediocrity again enough for gold. This time, he accidentally hit the trigger as he lowered the gun sight toward the bulls-eye and missed his mark, a mishap that dropped him to fourth.
As he had in Athens, the affable Emmons handled disappointment well, focusing not on the letdown, but on the family’s three-medal haul; he won silver in prone, Katy gold in 10-meter air rifle and silver in three-position.
Though he would occasionally get irritated after hearing crude remarks about his failures while at shooting events, Emmons never really thought about the two blunders others tried to define him by.
Emmons fully closed out that chapter, at least mentally, in 2012 when his sports psychologist suggested he watch the finals. Emmons doesn’t like to watch himself shoot, but agreed.
Turns out, it wasn’t nearly as bad as he thought.
“It put things in perspective,” Emmons said. “Those failures, those mishaps, the things that I’ve learned in the process have made my life, my athletic career so much richer, so much more fulfilling than anything I could have done had I won those medals.”
Emmons’ perspective had already taken a shift with a health scare two years earlier.
While preparing for a trip to Singapore, where he would serve as an ambassador at the 2010 Youth Olympics, Emmons didn’t feel right and went to the doctor. Because he was leaving in three days, the doctor sped up the process, ordering x-rays and an ultrasound of his neck.
The ultrasound revealed a nodule on his thyroid gland. He was told to cancel his trip and go back to the doctor for a biopsy. It could be cancer.
“You hear cancer and you think, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die,’” Emmons said.
After a tense weekend, Emmons had the biopsy and was told though the sample was too small, it looked like cancer. Word spread quickly through the shooting community and Emmons heard from Dr. Yuman Fong, an ENT whose daughters were Emmons’ teammates.
Following Dr. Fong’s suggestion, Emmons flew to New York to have surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, just a few hours’ drive from his parents’ home in southern New Jersey.
During four hours of surgery, doctors removed Emmons’ thyroid and 24 lymph nodes, eight of which turned out to be cancerous. He later underwent radiation treatment, but was back shooting within two months. Emmons began winning again and eventually qualified for the 2012 London Olympics.
“He really has an incredible resiliency,” Katy Emmons said from their home just outside Pilsen, Czech Republic, where they’ve lived full-time the past three years.
Emmons needed it again less than a year before the London Games.
He and Katy split time between the Czech Republic and the United States, living near an indoor shooting range in northern Minnesota. When the range abruptly closed, the family — they have three kids — had to pack and move to Colorado Springs, near the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
Even with the personal turmoil heaped upon his health issues, Emmons kept his focus in London, earning a bronze medal in three-position, the event that tripped him up twice before.
“Thyroid cancer, moving my family, overcoming the mistake I had made in 2004 and 2008, to be in exactly the same position three Olympics later, working through it and getting a medal out of it was huge,” Emmons said. “I was like, ‘boom, monkey’s off my back, I feel so much better now.’”