League Lines: Youth Shooting Sports Programs Offer Golden Opportunities

Virginia >> The Arlington-Fairfax Chapter launched a youth shooting sports program in 1993 to complement the chapter’s adult programs and increase outreach to the local community. Over the past two decades, the program has grown to include multiple high school teams, a new state-of-the-art facility, national champions, and several Olympic athletes.

The program’s humble beginnings: a tractor shed that chapter members converted into an air rifle range. “It wasn’t ideal,” recalls Ernie Padgette, who suggested the chapter launch the program to recruit and train youth who were interested in shooting sports. “The lanes were narrower than regulations required. The building itself wasn’t insulated. It had no ceiling and neither heat nor air conditioning — but we were on our way.” The chapter supplied all the equipment and offered classes free of charge for any youth, regardless of their membership status.

As local high schools eliminated their practice facilities, rifle teams started holding their practices at the chapter. The chapter also launched its own juniors team — the NOVA Sharpshooters (using the nickname for the northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, DC) — who won the NRA National Sporter Air Rifle Championship in 2001. “This was the first of many championships won and national and international records set by junior shooters from our ‘little red tractor shed’,” says Padgette, who has served as chapter president since 2003.

Kristina FehlingsBy this point, Padgette says, the tractor shed had a ceiling, insulation, heat, and air conditioning. And the chapter had its first super star. During her four years on the Robinson Secondary School Rifle Team, Kristina Fehlings set more than 20 U.S. national records for air rifle and won more than 20 individual and team championships. In 2003, she was selected for the U.S. Olympic National Development Team. At the University of Nebraska, she was a college All-American in rifle and won the NCAA Championship. Other athletes who trained in the “little red tractor shed” soon followed suit as NCAA champions and members of the Olympic National Development Team. More went on to college and military academies with scholarships for their shooting abilities.

Lucas KozenieskyTwo members of this year’s U.S. Olympic Team got their start at the Arlington-Fairfax Chapter. Lucas Kozeniesky led his high school rifle team to several national championships and is the leading shooter at North Carolina State University, where he won NCAA All-American honors last year. Virginia “Ginny” Thrasher, now in her second year at West Virginia University, became the first freshman in NCAA history to sweep both individual rifle titles in the national championships last year — and she won a gold medal at the Olympics in Rio this summer!

As the youth teams were outgrowing the air rifle shed, the chapter was asked to host the 2015 World Police and Fire Games air rifle, skeet, and trap competitions. “Our existing range simply could not service the large number of competitors who would attend the World Police and Fire Games,” says Padgette. “Rather than accepting the limitations of our facilities and our programs, the Arlington-Fairfax Chapter decided to go for broke.” Chapter members designed and built a high-tech air rifle facility with 25 firing points, and the “little red tractor shed” was converted to office and storage space. After hosting successful games in 2015, this world-class facility is being used today to train the next generation of air rifle champions.