Moffat County 4-H shooters aiming high for national contest at long last
For the Craig Press
It’s been a long wait for a return trip to the big time for one Moffat County shooting sports competitor, and an even longer wait for another to get to that level, but at last they’ll be able to set their sights on being among the best of the best this summer.
Joey Gates and Alexander Nichols will represent Northwest Colorado during the 4-H National Shooting Sports Championships June 20 to 25 in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Gates will shoot in the air rifle discipline and Nichols in the archery compound unlimited category.
This will be the second time at the national event for Gates, who competed at the Grand Island locale in 2019 in the .22 rifle event, part of an all-girl team, all of whom also hailed from Moffat and Routt counties, including Angela Hill, Gabrielle Ellis and Taylor Kirby.
The foursome won the civilian marksmanship program at the championships, which Gates still takes as a point of pride, as well as her individual finish of second place in CMP.
The top finishers of the 2019 national qualifier had to requalify thanks to 2020’s many COVID-related cancellations across the globe. That worked out for Gates, who finished first in both air rifle and the .22 rifle, though she would not be allowed to compete at nationals again in the latter.
And, though she’s skilled in both types of firearms, Gates expects things will have a different air about them this time.
“I feel like air rifle will have more competition. I feel like it’s more widely practiced, and along with that there’s a lot of kids who compete in Olympic-style shoots. I’m going to be competing against kids who have done this their entire lives,” she said.
A varied style for Colorado in air rifle compared to other states may also play into her performance, though Gates said if past years are any indication, fellow shooters will be amiable.
“I’m definitely going to be up against some harder competition, especially with Texas. Texas is the big one,” she said. “It’s always really fun to talk to kids from other states and get their take on shooting.”
Gates also briefly competed in rifle shoots through Colorado State High School Rodeo Association but did not get a chance to do it as much as she would have liked.
“It teaches you a lot about yourself and the gun, and no matter what, practice is practice, so I feel like I earned some feedback from that,” she said.
This will be the first time at nationals for Nichols, who punched his ticket to the high-tier event with a second-place finish in the archery state shoot.
“The qualifying for this year, you just shot at your county level, added up your scores and that counted for your state score, and then they counted those up everywhere,” he said.
Archery events include the traditional recurve as well as compound limited, though he noted he certainly prefers the unlimited format.
“With unlimited, you can kind of do whatever you like, and for limited you have to have a stationary site and your stabilizers have to be a lot shorter,” he said. “When I first joined 4-H, I shot limited, but the last four or five years it’s been unlimited. I had a different bow before, and it was a lot shorter axle to axle. The longer bows tend to shoot a little smoother. The little ones for kids, it might be all they can pull back.”
Nichols has been competing in the bow-and-arrow pursuit for about eight years and was helped along getting into it by his parents. The family’s Northwest Pawn also features a small indoor archery range.
“I did pretty good on the paper round (at state), and that’s probably from practicing a lot at our own range,” he said. “I’ve also been going out to the range at Wyman’s a lot to practice.”
Besides paper targets, archery shooters also take on 3-D animal targets.
“I have more fun shooting 3-D. I really like how it’s still challenging after all these years,” Nichols said. “I’ve done hunting with archery before too. I haven’t gotten anything yet, but I have another bow that’s a little shorter and easier to drag through the woods.”
Gates has likewise been involved in shooting since adolescence, though it was another sport that got her intrigued in rifles.
“I started competitively in about sixth-grade, but I initially did it just for the safety part of it for hunting with my family,” she said. “My mom told me, ‘you need some safety first,’ and then I just fell in love with it.”
Nichols admitted to being a tad intimidated though more excited about the national championships, especially since it may be the only time he qualifies unless he suddenly takes up the recurve.
“We only had three months in advance of telling us they would actually have it, because the first time it was canceled, and then I qualified again for it,” he said. “It was kind of a bummer because we had one kid who had qualified and then aged out.”
While Nichols will enter his senior year at Moffat County High School this fall, Gates picked up her diploma a few weeks ago and is planning to study mechanical engineering at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.
However, another nearby facility may also be down her personal path with shooting possibly playing a large part in it.
“They have the Olympic Training center there, and I’m trying to make myself as competitive as possible to apply for the Air Force Academy. They have a great shooting team,” she said.
While both young shooters wish to do their best, they’re also not putting too much do-or-die pressure on themselves.
Among the archery coaches are PJ, Nichols’s father, and Jason Wheeler, as well as Sarah and Shawn Polly. Gates will see coach Jody Lee — who oversees the local 4-H rifle program with wife Red — guiding her at nationals.
“Everyone works so hard for this and thinks they deserve a place, so I know that if I don’t come out on top, that’s OK, because there were kids that may deserve to win a little bit more than me, and I’m totally fine with that,” Gates said. “I know we all worked so hard to be here, and I can’t wait to compete against kids who are interested in the same thing as me.”
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