Young Champions Aim to Inspire

Rion Haley
Ginny Thrasher

Twenty-four-year-old Virginia “Ginny” Thrasher credits the Izaak Walton League of America with influencing her call to competitive shooting sports. So far, that calling has earned Thrasher a string of honors, including an Olympic gold medal for women’s air rifle shooting at Rio in 2016.

For her first four years of training, she used the air rifle range at the Arlington-Fairfax Chapter in Centreville, Va. “The seven-lane range was actually a converted tractor shed with no heat, AC, running water or bathrooms,” she says.

Those inconveniences didn’t deter her. She found herself practicing at the range every night it was open. There, Bucky Sills and Oscar Starz, chapter board members and certified coaches, worked with her and other promising young participants, helping them learn and practice the sport.

Thrasher says the League “helped the careers of multiple Olympic medalists and NCAA champions and sent many kids to college on shooting scholarships.”

She began participating in the sport as a teenager after her father and grandfather took her on a hunting trip. Her high school’s air rifle team practiced at the Arlington-Fairfax Chapter, and she joined the team as a freshman.

In addition to Olympic medalists, the Izaak Walton League has helped to train NCAA champions and send many kids to college on shooting sports scholarships.

As a high school senior, Thrasher was recruited by West Virginia, which was the number-one-ranked NCAA rifle program. There she won both air and small-bore rifle NCAA individual titles as a freshman, the youngest person in history to achieve that honor.

Soon after, she qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympic team where she won the gold medal at the tender age of 19. “It was the very event I had spent four years training for at the IWLA,” she said.

Thrasher graduated from West Virginia in 2019 with a degree in biomedical engineering and then moved to Colorado Springs, the location of the Olympic Training Center.

She is currently training to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

While getting ready for competitions ahead, Thrasher also works to get other young people involved in shooting sports.

“Legacy is not just the medals you win, but also the impact you leave on others,” she tells Outdoor America. “I believe the best way to introduce people to the sport is to make it fun.”

Thrasher tries to introduce the sport and engage young athletes across the world via videos and social media. She hopes she will make a difference, “like Bucky and Oscar did for me.”

“I am so proud to be an alumna of this range and have such fond memories of being a part of the IWLA community.” Thanks to the work of Sills and Starz, the converted tractor shed is now a state-of-the-art range that features 26 lanes, electronic targets and a large lobby.

Lucas Kozeniesky - credit USA Shooting Lucas Kozeniesky earned a silver medal in the 2021 Olympics.

Another Olympic medalist who trained at the Izaak Walton League’s Arlington-Fairfax Chapter is Lucas Kozeniesky. In his Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, he placed 21st in a field of 50 competitors. Not content with that result, he doubled down on his training, and it showed when he returned to the Olympics in Tokyo earlier this year. He won a silver medal in the 10-meter air rifle mixed team, which narrowly missed gold. And as an individual competitor, he placed sixth in men’s air rifle in Tokyo.

He credits his improvement between Olympic competitions to maturity and focus.

Kozeniesky’s training began on the Robinson High School team in northern Virginia, using the Arlington-Fairfax Chapter’s facilities. He continued training in college at North Carolina State.

Through a business he created, Team Winning Solutions, Kozeniesky now passes along what he has learned by coaching young people in the sport. He does this via Zoom and is proud to help those who are isolated or lack access to a range. Several athletes he has trained have continued the sport at the college level.

Kozeniesky is also training for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Bree Butler - credit Patrick J. White Shooting champion Bree Butler (center) talks to day campers at the Fort Wayne Chapter.

As a third-generation member of the Fort Wayne Chapter, 17-year-old Bremen “Bree” Butler has used the chapter rifle and pistol ranges to train for competitions.

The training has paid off. Earlier this year, Butler won silver medals in both air and small-bore rifle competitions in the USA Shooting National Junior Olympics.

“The League gave me a place to train and hone my skill, and my grandpa [Jay Butler] is very involved with the League’s range. It’s so neat to see how much support I get when I come to the range. People ask about my competitions and it’s so great to be in that community,” she said.

At the chapter’s Young Ikes Day Camp, Butler spoke to campers and demonstrated her techniques.

“It was genuinely so much fun. I was really nervous going in because the kids were as young as 6 and I wasn’t sure how I would explain the sport to them,” she said. Butler herself attended an Izaak Walton League camp when she was 8, and she remembers nature walks, crafts, the archery range and flag ceremonies.

She recommends shooting sports to younger generations because, “I think this sport is the most inclusive sport there is. It doesn’t matter your height, weight or athletic ability. If you practice and work hard, you can achieve great things.”

Still a member of the League, Butler plans to be out on the Fort Wayne range most summer days next year. In addition to support from father Chris and grandfather Jay, Butler views the chapter members as supportive family too.

Congratulations to Lucas Kozeniesky, Ginny Thrasher and Bree Butler, inspirations to young Ikes across the country.

This article was excerpted from “Outdoor America” 2021 issue #4. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Rion Haley is a freelance writer and former editor of Outdoor America.

Top photo: Ginny Thrasher's League training fueled enthusiasm that led to an Olympic gold medal in Rio. Photo credits: Ginny Thrasher.

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