STRAIGHT SHOOTER

Iroquois Warrior seeks spot on Team USA for 2020 Olympics

03/04/2019  |  By Maj. Michelle Lunato 98th Training Division (IET), Public Affairs Officer
The Griffon
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While most people look forward to seeing the Olympic Games every couple of years, one U.S. Army Reserve Soldier is looking to do more than watch the games, she wants to compete in them.

Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), is actively on the mission to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic Team, specifically to compete in both the Women’s 10m Air Pistol and Women’s 25m Sport Pistol events.

Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft recently won Silver Medals in both the 25m Sport Pistol and 10m Air Pistol events during both the December Winter Airgun and Selection matches in Colorado. The Selection Match medal has placed the Army Reserve Soldier on the National Team for the February 2019 World Cup Games in New Delhi, India. This match could be another opportunity for Uptagrafft to not only win a medal but also claim a needed quota spot for Team USA. However, the trip is not guaranteed to happen just yet since the International Pistol Program has an extremely limited funding budget, which means many Olympic pistol competitors must fund all their own international competition trips. The World Cup in New Delhi is just one of four remaining World Cup prior to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

The journey to making an Olympic Team for the United States is neither short, nor easy. Spots on the Shooting USA Team are few, and contenders must regularly compete in national and international competitions in the years preceding the Olympics.

Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), fires her pistol during the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s President’s 100 Pistol Match at Camp Perry, Ohio in July 2017. Uptagrafft earned her first President’s 100 Badge at that match and regularly competes in civilian and military matches outside the International Pistol Program schedule to stay skilled as a Soldier and enhance her overall marksmanship abilities.

Photo by Maj. Michelle Lunato, 98th Training Division (IET) Public Affairs Officer

However, regardless of their competition track record, individual shooting sports athletes cannot even earn a spot on Team USA until the country as a whole earns a quota, or a ticket, to each individual event at the Games and the maximum is two slots per event per country. These country quotas are only earned when individual athletes win medals at world-class events against international competitors. Once the countries divvy up all the quotas, only then will the individual members be selected for Team USA.

Uptagrafft, who is a resident of Phenix City, Alabama, is not new to this complex process. In fact, she knows it well as she was on the Shooting USA Team in 2012 for the Olympics Games in London, where she placed 28th in both 10m Air Pistol and 25m Sport Pistol. Competing again in 2016, she came up just one point short of making the Games in Rio when she won the Silver Medal in 25m Sport Pistol at the Olympic Team Trials, despite just having pins removed from her fingers on her shooting hand. (Uptagrafft had broken three of her fingers, including her trigger finger five months prior to the Olympic Trials.)

Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), checks and scores a competitors target during the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s President’s 100 Pistol Match at Camp Perry, Ohio in July 2017. Uptagrafft earned her first President’s 100 Badge at that match and regularly competes in civilian and military matches outside the International Pistol Program schedule to stay skilled as a Soldier and enhance her overall marksmanship abilities.

Photo by Maj. Michelle Lunato, 98th Training Division (IET) Public Affairs Officer

Not only a past Olympian, but this Army Reserve Soldier has individually earned the United States four Olympic Quotas in 25m Sport Pistol for the last four Olympic Games.

Shooting sports quotas for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan have started to roll in for Team USA. In November, Uptagrafft competed at the 12th Championships of the Americas (CAT) in Guadalajara, Mexico. In those games, she brought home a number of wins and titles: the Silver Medal in the Air Pistol Mixed Team event (with teammate James Hall from Anniston, Alabama); the team Gold Medal in the Women’s 10m Air Pistol event (with teammates Alexis Lagan from Boulder City, Nevada and Sarah Choe from Los Angeles, California); and an individual Bronze Medal in Women’s 25m Sport Pistol.

While that all sounds impressive, the Army Reserve Soldier says she failed her mission. “All the medals may look good, but I’m not personally happy with my results there.”

 

Outside of the tough personal scrutiny that all Olympic athletes use to push them on to world-class levels, Uptagrafft was seeking to do better in the individual 10m Air Pistol event that she placed 8th in and to earn the Nation a quota, or two, for the 2020 Olympics. Lagan, her U.S. teammate, snatched up the Gold Medal and a quota in 25m Sport Pistol, the event where Uptagrafft earned her most recent Bronze Medal. The win by Lagan gives the United States one ticket to compete in the 25m Sport Pistol event. The 10m Mixed Team event has no possible quotas and that team will be made up from the athletes selected to be on Team USA.

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), stands with Lt. Col. Patrick Sleem and Sgt. Maj. George Greene from the U.S. Army Reserve Marksmanship Unit after being awarded her first President’s 100 Badge during the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio in July 2017. “Sgt. Maj. Greene took his own badge off and gave it to me that day! It was very cool, and I am super proud of that.”

Photo by Maj. Michelle Lunato, 98th Training Division (IET) Public Affairs Officer

With only one U.S. quota in 25m Sport Pistol so far, and no quotas in 10m Air Pistol, Uptagrafft’s goal of making Team USA is still in the distance. As 2019 gets into full swing, Uptagrafft, and her other U.S. teammates, will be competing side-by-side with the same goal—earning quotas for Team USA.

While the current, hopeful journey onto another Team USA is interesting, Upagrafft’s long path into the elite level of shooting sports feels like the iconic “American Dream,” says the Army Reserve Soldier.

Uptagrafft came to the United States from Singapore with her parents when she was around six years old. She joined the California Army National Guard as a way to contribute to the Nation while she was in college. As life went on and circumstances changed, one thing remained constant, she kept serving in different capacities. In fact, the Singapore native now has over 20 years of service in several different military components: U.S. Army National Guard, active-duty service with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, U.S. Navy Reserve and now, the U.S. Army Reserve.

Prior to joining the military, the shooting sports Olympian had never even fired a weapon. “The first thing I ever shot was the M16 in Basic Training,” she said.

In fact, that introduction to firearms intrigued Uptagrafft so much that she and some others at the University of Southern California wanted to start a competitive shooting team. “Actually, we wanted to start a rifle team at USC, and we couldn’t find a rifle coach. But, we found a pistol coach. So that’s how I wound up a pistol shooter. Even though, that was the first time I had ever shot a pistol,” laughed the Olympic pistol competitor. “So, I am still a rifle shooter wanna-be on the inside.”

Though she may have wanted to compete on rifle, working with a pistol coach just clicked and Uptagrafft discovered that she had a talent for it. “I kind of had a knack for it. So that helped, and it was fun because I was good at it,” she explained.

Of course being good at it, doesn’t mean it came easy to Uptagrafft. It was actually the difficulty of the sport that kept bringing her back, said the Army Reserve Soldier who is also currently an Information Technology graduate student.

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), stands on the podium in November 2017 during the 12th Championships of the Americas in Guadalajara, Mexico after winning the Silver Medal in the 10m Air Pistol Mixed Team event.

Photo by USA Shooting

“I stuck with it because it is challenging. I am a problem solver by nature, and I like analyzing things and solving problems. And it’s a challenge figuring out your equipment, the technical aspect, the mental aspect—it all has to come together. And, then there’s the challenge of competing and pushing yourself. I think that’s why I stuck with it for this long.”

Uptagrafft enjoys shooting both Olympic events, so her favorite of the two has alternated over the years.

“I kind of bounce back and forth on that. At the beginning, my very first National Championships was in Air Pistol...but I think lately, I have been better in Sport Pistol,” she explained.

Each event has it challenges and varies in the course of fire. However, both require extreme concentration to consistently hit the center of the target, or the 10-ring. In the 10m Air Pistol event, Uptagrafft has to fire 60 rounds at a target with a 11.5mm 10-ring. In the 25m Pistol event, which is shot with a .22 caliber, the Army Reserve Soldier has to aim six five-shot series, totaling 30 rounds, at a 50mm 10-ring during the precision stage that is limited to five minutes per series. Then, the second half of the match is another six five-shot series, totally 30 rounds, at a 100mm 10-ring during the rapid fire stage that is limited to three seconds per round in each series.

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), fires her pistol during the November USA Shooting Winter Airgun Match in Colorado. Uptagrafft claimed a Silver Medal in both the 10m Air Pistol and 25m Sport Pistol events at this match.

Photo by USA Shooting

These added elements in the Sport Pistol event make it Uptagrafft’s recent favorite. “I think I prefer Sport Pistol, because it’s not just precision. The second half has a speed element to it.”

At the Olympic level, the mere difference of a millimeter or portion of a second, can change results dramatically. Training for this type of accuracy on the world-class stage requires a variety of skills like mental stamina, physical fitness and a never-quit attitude, said the 2012 Olympian.

“Women’s Air Pistol changed from 40 shots to 60 shots in 2018. So now, endurance is in the mix. It’s definitely more challenging and more of a marathon than a sprint,” said the 2020 Olympic hopeful.

Dealing with stress is something all servicemembers learn to cope with. Through years of military training and a year-long deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, Uptagrafft said she has learned to manage her anxiety and emotions, most days. But standing side by side on the firing line with some of the world’s best competitors is another kind of pressure.

These two very different experiences are bound to help each other, but it’s hard to say which helps the other more: does being a world-class competitor make her a better Soldier or is it vice versa?

“I think it’s a combination of both,” said Uptagrafft, who hopes to be an Army Reserve warrant officer one day. “I think just having been through, say any military training or a deployment, just makes you a tougher person, both physically and mentally. So you can take that to the line with you. You can know that you have that toughness when you are competing. But also, you learn things when you are training and competing that you can also take with you into your military life, like the perseverance—the determination that it takes and the hard work that it takes to win at the elite level. All that attention to detail translates well into the Army.”

Of course, no Soldier or Olympian is perfect, regardless of the amount of training. There will always be factors that are out of control, emotions to deal with and stress to manage. And when competing on the world stage, Uptagrafft says it can be hard knowing that she is not just representing herself, but the Army Reserve and the Nation as well.

“Sometimes it’s a little heavy. It’s a little stressful to have all those people counting on you,” reflected Uptagrafft. “You don’t want to do poorly, because people are watching. So it can be a little stressful, but it’s also great to know that when you are standing on that podium, you know—with the flag going up, that you are representing your country well and showing the rest of the world what we can do.”

U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Sandra Uptagrafft, a medical logistic specialist with Bravo Company, 4/518th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), fires alongside her teammate, James Hall from Anniston, Alabama during the International Shooting Sports Federation’s World Cup at Fort Benning, Georgia in May 2018.

Photo by USA Shooting

Ultimately, Uptagrafft’s mission completion point is to stand on the podium at the 2020 Olympics and hear the National Anthem. Though she’s not stood on an Olympic podium yet, she’s stood, listening to the Anthem while watching the American Flag rise at a few CAT and Pan American Games, and she says it’s an indescribable experience.

“I don’t think I can explain it,” reflected the Army Reserve Soldier who has medaled in four Pan American Games and 15 National Championships and gets choked up when she hears the anthem play. “It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work, so you feel proud that all that hard work paid off.”

With the Olympic Trials still in the distance, it is too soon to think of the rewards, it is just time for more hard work, according to Uptagrafft. As 2019 gets into full swing, she says she will have to dig deep, train hard and stay focused on the American Dream the little girl from Singapore imagined. And now that that little girl has grown up and become a Soldier, her Olympic dream has even more meaning, said the 2020 Olympic hopeful.

“It’s just an honor to be able to serve your country. Not having been born in the United States, I feel like being a Soldier and Olympian means a lot more to me personally,” said Uptagrafft.

“We came to the U.S. for opportunity, the ‘Land of the Free,’ the ‘Home of the Brave.’ We kind of had this idea in our minds of what it was going to be like here, and to actually live it, you know, to live the American Dream...My being able to win an Olympic medal for the U.S. is part of that dream.”

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