MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For every West Virginia University student-athlete, two key, emotional songs bookend an athletic competition – “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Country Roads.”
“Oh say can you see..” signifies the start of an event. Nerves begin to ramp up, or settle in, and an athlete focuses in on the task at hand.
“Almost heaven, West Virginia…” can mean only one thing – the Mountaineers are victorious.
One particular Mountaineer student-athlete has heard a lot of those special tunes as of late, and for good reason - WVU rifle sophomore Ginny Thrasher just keeps competing. And winning.
The whirlwind for the Springfield, Virginia, native began late last June, when she splashed onto the national scene at the 2015 USA Shooting National Championships for Rifle/Pistol and captured five medals, including two in the open categories, to secure U.S. National Team status.
That outing launched Thrasher toward a successful first season with the WVU rifle team. With less than five years of shooting experience, she quietly, and easily, blended in with the then-three-time national champions, taking a backseat in the spotlight in the early parts of the season, while consistently putting up some of the team’s top marks, shooting 590+ in air rifle in all but one match.
By season’s end, Thrasher was shooting alongside four Mountaineer seniors for the team’s fourth straight and nation-best 18th National Championship. WVU comfortably secured the title, but Thrasher stole the spotlight, sweeping the individual titles with wins in smallbore and air rifle to become only the second Mountaineer in the program’s storied history to earn both championships in one season.
All that was just a warm-up for what would follow for the three-time All-American and the Great American Rifle Conference Rookie of the Year, as Thrasher’s winding journey through the 2015-16 season was about to take an unexpected left turn to Rio de Janeiro.
Less than one month after she grabbed the title as the NCAA’s top shooter, Thrasher took a large step toward seizing the nation’s best shooter title, as she finished in first place at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Smallbore and secured a roster spot for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. She is the third WVU rifle female student-athlete, and the first since Jean Foster at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, to earn a U.S. Olympic roster position.
All she does is compete. All she does is win.
“This is such an exciting time for me,” Thrasher said last week at the onset of the 2016 USA Shooting National Championships for Rifle/Pistol, where she again collected titles (three) and medals (four). “The opportunity to see athletics at this high of a level really puts this experience into perspective. I’ve realized that life is a lot more than my sport. Life is a lot of sports and a lot of people coming together and working hard. The Olympics are a great time for the world to come together. The fact that I get to be a bigger part of that experience, and not just watch it on TV, is exhilarating.”
Thrasher has put in hours of hard work since securing her roster spot in April. Her passport book is cluttered with stamps from across the globe, with stops in Brazil, Colorado, Germany, the Czech Republic and France, helping prepare her for the task that stands before her in August.
“I think everyone has tried to keep me busy so I don’t overthink the moment,” Thrasher laughed. “It’s been such a great experience, as I’ve traveled to all these different countries and shot on so many different ranges. I’ve been able to do what I love to do every day, all while being supported by so many different people. Nothing gets better than this.”
Tough competition and hours logged on the line have helped boost Thrasher’s confidence, something she believes will help her overcome her rookie Olympic status.
“Given my age and the few years I have been shooting, I think others are stunned (to see me on the roster),” she explained. “I think I bring a lot of raw energy to competition. I like to attack practice. I like to go into each match with a really positive attitude and give it everything I have.
“For me, this year has been refreshing and a lot of fun. There have been a lot more matches to attack, and I have been provided with a lot more resources which help channel all the energy I bring.”
Though she may have stood on the outside of the national scene just one year ago, Thrasher knew this day and moment were right around the corner.
“I have known that I was at an average level and climbing to this level for a while,” she recalled. “I think (WVU coach) Jon (Hammond) did really well in recruiting me for my potential and attitude – he believed that I would grow, and he knew he could harvest my energy. Ever since I’ve been at WVU and surrounded by all these great resources, I’ve known that the sky is the limit. I have been growing this entire year. Now, I’m sure that it’s cool for him to see – because it is definitely cool for me to see – how all that growth and hard work has translated to some good results at some really important matches.”
Thrasher will be surrounded at Rio by several Mountaineers, who also grew and developed under Hammond, himself a two-time Olympian for Great Britain. Italy boasts two WVU national champions, as Nicco Campriani, the 2012 London Olympics 50m rifle 3 positions champion and 10m air rifle runner-up, and Petra Zublasing return to the Olympic stage. Also returning to Olympic competition is Slovenian Ziva Dvorsak, a 2015 WVU graduate. Additionally, WVU Athletics Hall of Fame member Dave Johnson will again coach the United States.
While she will not walk around the Athlete Olympic Village in her gold and blue gear, as she cannot wear anything that is not issued by the USA National Team, Thrasher will have the Mountaineers and WVU on her mind.
“Anyone who knows who me knows that I am a die-hard Mountaineer for life,” she enthused. “For me, my shooting suit will still be gold and blue, and West Virginia will be close to my heart.”
That dual representation is what makes this last year, and the upcoming moment, so special for Thrasher.
“This whole moment can be slightly overwhelming, but not only is this a great opportunity, I truly feel like I am prepared,” she said without hesitation. “I feel like I worked really hard on the WVU Rifle Range and also with the United States National Team coaches, and all these different resources have helped me prepare in a really good way. This whole last year has been great preparation for the next step in my shooting career.”
A busy period for the young Thrasher is about to close. The 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games open Aug. 5, and she has no choice but to be ready, as the women’s 10m air rifle competition opens early the next morning. A Gold medalist will be crowned that day inside the Olympic Shooting Centre, and given the way the year has gone, no one should be surprised if “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played in Thrasher’s honor.
Until then, it seems only fitting we celebrate her spectacular first-season success with “Country Roads.”
“Almost heaven, West Virginia…”