Ian O’Sullivan: ‘My grandfather’s gun malfunctioned on me right in the middle of the World Junior final’

Ian O’Sullivan, 21, is the rising star of clay pigeon shooting. He won junior gold at the 2014 World Championships, European junior bronze a year later and was sixth in the 2017 European Senior Championships. Since graduating from Limerick IT last summer (businesss and sports management), he combines training with working in the family business in Rathkeale.

Ian O’Sullivan: ‘My grandfather’s gun malfunctioned on me right in the middle of the World Junior final’

How do people react when you tell them you’re a shooter?

No one says much really because we’re fairly well known around home in Rathkeale. My family has an iron works and a gun shop and my father Brian and grandfather Billy both competed internationally and still shoot. Ever since I was small, I was always off with them, watching them compete.

You compete in clay pigeon, also called Olympic trench or ‘trap’. Do you have to be fit?

Not necessarily. The gun weighs between eight to nine pounds and in competition you shoot 25 clays or ‘birds’ at a time and then have a break. But you do need to have a strong core. Tom Comyns (former Olympic sprinter) of UL has designed a fitness programme for me and I’m about to start working with sports psychologist Stephen McIvor.

When did you first shoot in a competition?

The youngest you can get a training licence to compete here is 14 but I first competed in England when I was 11 because I was over and back there with my dad and grandfather. I started off shooting down the line — at a set target — and moved on to shooting the Olympic trench when I was 16 or 17.

When did you realise you were good?

In 2014, when I went to the World Championships in Granada. There were 34 countries competing and I ended up winning the Junior Trap title.I went to the European Juniors the previous year and came 12th but it just all clicked at those worlds.

Is it true that your gun jammed in the final?

Yes! (laughs). I was actually using my grandfather’s gun then because it was before I got sponsored. The final came down to myself and an Australian, Jack Wallace, and it was down to the last 15 birds (clay targets). I’d shot 11 out of 11 and then the gun malfunctioned and broke down. I couldn’t get the cartridge out of it so I missed the next two shots! But then I hit the last two and won, thank God.

So, grandad’s gun end up in a smelter somewhere?

Ah no (laughs) but I’m sponsored by two Italian companies now, Beretta for guns and Cheddite for ammunition. The Italians are the world’s best in my sport.

Just how many guns have you got?

Six. I’m just after changing my competition gun to one with a shorter barrel. I went to Italy last October to get a new stock made for it so I’m making a bit of a transition. I’m right-handed but I actually shoot left-handed because my left eye is stronger. Good sight helps as a shooter but it’s also about reaction speed.

Where and how often do you train?

Once the season starts in January I try and train between three to four times a-week, mostly in my local range in Knockagoshel and also in Courtlough in Balbriggan and Lakelands in Mullingar.

How do you train?

We shoot between 100 to 150 targets every session and it’s all automated and done by accoustics. You call the bird and it’s instantly released on your voice. There’s 15 traps under the ground. Any one of them can come up and it can go left, right, or straight. They’re set to fly between 1 to 1.5m high, and between 0 and 45 degrees.

Do Irish shooters have any particular disadvantages?

Yes — the weather! The clays travel at 64mph and are only about 3.5 inches. The light and visibility here is the biggest problem, even in practice. So before big competitions I go abroad for training camps.

Getting your guns through airports must surely also be a nightmare?

Not usually in Europe, or if we travel on Aer Lingus, but getting to my first big competition this season, a World Cup in Mexico last month, was a right disaster.

How bad?

We were on an airline who scrutinised the guns so much in Dublin that we missed our flight to LA. That meant we had to take the next one to New York and fly down. When we got to Mexico City, they wouldn’t accept my copy of the gun licence. We were stuck there for eight hours while the original was couriered over. When we eventually got to Guadalajara we’d been travelling for 48 hours and missed two days of training. I shot badly and only finished 30th (from a field of 58).

What are your big targets in 2018?

The World Championships in Changwon (Korea) next September and the European Championships in Austria in August. I made the final at Europeans last year, shot the highest score in qualification but unfortunately not in the final as I finished sixth.

Any big setbacks in your career to date?

It can happen anytime because the margins are so fine. You’ll have travelled out foreign, been at a training camp. made lots of sacrifices and and next thing you go in and shoot badly the first day. With three more days of competition your’e already out of the running. That’s tough.

Miniscule errors can be hugely costly?

Definitely. I think shooting, more than any other, is a sport where literally anyone could win. In September 2016, in a British Grand Prix, I shot a perfect score from 25 clays and then beat the Rio bronze medallist Ed Ling in a shoot-off. Everyone is able to hit the clays. It’s just so mentally draining — that’s what decides it.

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