Facing life down the barrel of a gun might sound intimidating, but some people on the Rock do exactly that on a regular basis up at the Europa Point firing range. There, within the confines of its nest on the outer cliff-face, under the shadow of the lighthouse, the Gibraltar Target Shooting Association settled in its home. After cycling the hilltops that lay between the air strip and the range, I caught up with one of Gibraltar’s top target shooters to see if any new nestlings were eager to hatch. The lock on the rusty metal door of the square-box, military-looking facility caused a loud metallic clang as it crashed back. On the other side, standing fully kitted and rifle in hand, Stephanie Piri, a crime scene investigator in her day job and a shooter since she was twelve, welcomed me inside. She was soon back on the range and nestled into her lucky slot, number 22, which she loathes to miss out on when she finds someone else practicing there. This time, however, she was the only one in the facility besides me, and I wasn’t about to challenge her podium place.
But in truth, Stephanie, 25, considers herself more like an older sister to the new crop of youngsters who threw away their toy guns for a more sophisticated firearm quite some time ago.
Kristina Hewitt and Mairead Sheriff, both 14, are fresh onto the scene and are already pushing Stephanie and Gibraltar’s stalwart shooting star, Heloise Mañasco, to represent the Rock at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. There are only two spots available in the women’s standing 10m air-rifle event. However, there is no sense of bitterness between them, quite the contrary, Stephanie, like Heloise, use their experience to help guide these young fledglings onto greater things. That’s just the way it is among this closely-knit family, both figuratively and literally. The Piri name stretches a couple of generations, as do several others. Mairead’s father, Darren, is now the Island Games coach, but there is no favouritism between family, it just wouldn’t be possible. Stephanie says she has curbed her influence on the two younger girls who are praying for her place at the games to allow Darren’s ability in coaching to flourish and not tread on his territory, “I used to help out more in the early stages, but now that Darren has taken over, I don’t want to step on his shoes. I sometimes whisper some advice into his ear about small improvements to the girls’ technique, but he is doing a great job and he has helped me develop my personal game enormously.”
Stephanie considers Mairead, who just started shooting in January last year, to be very dedicated and she tries to take advantage of that as much as she can by joining her on the range in extra sessions, “Mairead is performing better than I did at her age. Back then, we adopted a different coaching style where each shooter focused on one particular discipline. However, she was thrown in the deep end and ended up practicing all of them. I believe that this style is more efficient as it is a lot easier to learn across the board when you are younger.” Stephanie has been shooting air rifles for nearly half her life, so when Darren asked her to try something new, it meant erasing twelve years of learning, “It can be challenging for me, but Mairead can easy go through these changes because she is so fresh.”
The big sister also has a soft spot for Kristina, who has a ‘lovely and bubbly little character’ with an inquisitive nature, “I think she really enjoys the sport also. She has improved her scoring. Qualifying for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games started in mid-December and the target score for the MCS is 404.1. Unfortunately, she was some way out several months ago, hitting 360s.” But Darren was once again to come to the rescue, determined to get her into the 400s in six weeks, “She managed to achieve the target score in six days, which is quite astonishing. We spent the majority of the Christmas holidays in the range, normally we take a break, but I think this really helped all of us. We are all very proud of her. It was always assumed around the range that it would be Heloise and I who would qualify, but now we really need to earn our place. That is testimony to Darren’s hard work and the commitment of these two girls.”
Back to form
To qualify for the Commonwealth Games, a shooter needs to complete seven out of ten competitions with a score of 404.1. If more than two competitors achieve this total, then the highest average of each shooter is taken from the top seven MCS competitions. In a game, you have 40 shots and the maximum you can hit is 10.9 in each shot, that’s when you hit dead centre and we are talking about millimetres in size. Hitting this target distinguishes the best of the best. It was under this sort of pressure that Stephanie needed to bounce back from a sprained shoulder that kept her out for over a year.
After ciphering through a series of four different physios, the last one managed to do the trick and get her back on the range. However, her scores had fallen to a level inferior to that of her bronze medal achievement at the Island Games in Jersey 2015, around 400. Nevertheless, she was out there again and the technical edge combined with a persistent mental push in the right direction from Mr Sheriff, left Stephanie in top condition, “When you shoot, you are unable to see yourself, so it is good to have someone like Darren there to point out the errors I make. Now, I am hitting over 400, but I need to shoot better than everyone else consistently.” She was more accustomed to shooting quickfire rounds so as to not to over-think her shots, but Darren believed this was detrimental to her game, “He called me machine-gun Kelly before telling me to slow down,” she said with a coy smile. “For the next four months, I had his voice in my head and it’s worked. I’ve added 30 seconds to each shot, which is substantial in shooting. It’s hard to describe the change that has come over me. I guess I have become more patient.”
With four elite athletes competing for four spots, all shooting at an impressive level, Gibraltar is spoiled for choice ahead of the Gold Coast Commonwealth and Island Games. Throughout the years, countless shooters have proudly worn the red and white colours in international competition. It seems as though there is no stopping the factory production line of young talent and they will soon escape the comfortable surroundings of their nest and fly to foreign lands to reproduce the fantastic international record that heralds from humble origins.
words | Mark Viales