The Olympic gold hopeful gunning for glory in backyard field of dreams.

Russell Mark reckons James Willett knew things we didn’t know about the coronavirus and how it would shut down the world of sport.

Image: James Willett shapes as a gold medal contender in two events next year.

“I tell everybody, including him … he had something to do with it,” jokes the coach of the Tokyo Olympics gold medal contender.

Mark, the Atlanta Olympics double trap champion, is referring to Willett’s exquisite timing on a couple of fronts. Firstly, in booking his place in Japan early and therefore avoiding having to travel to Sydney for the final qualification event in March – one of the last sports events held in Australia before the lockdown. Secondly, and more significantly, about the same time the 24-year-old from the Riverina happened to finish construction on a $250,000 Olympic-standard clay-target range on his family’s property at Mulwala.

With shooting clubs shut around the world, it meant Willett has been one of the few competitors in his sport able to continue training properly – simply by walking out the back door with his shotgun.

“I think it’s the only private range in NSW … there would only be a handful in the country,” Mark said. “But how smart was he to build that?”

The Willetts have sheep and crops on the farm, although they haven’t put a crop in this year yet because of the weather.

Image: The range Willett and his father have built on the family property.

Willett and his father Arthur were also busy over summer building the range, which they began in November to help him prepare for the Tokyo Olympics. Back then, the first official reports of a new virus in China were still weeks away. The idea of the Games being postponed until 2021, as they have been, was unthinkable.

The facility, which includes 15 clay-target machines inside a two-metre bunker, is now even more valuable to Willett’s quest for Olympic gold. Many of his international rivals have been unable to leave their houses, let alone train as they ordinarily would, and there will almost certainly be no global competitions again this year.

“Once COVID hit, it’s sort of paid off a lot more,” Willett said. “I have been able to train when pretty much all the clubs were closed around the country.

“It’s set up maybe 100 or so metres from the house on the farm. It’s not that far out at all. I’m shooting a couple of days a week at the moment but, leading into big competitions, I can shoot up to seven days a week if I want.”

Image: The facility includes 15 clay-target machines in a bunker.

As restrictions ease, the plan is to invite Olympic team members to his place so they don’t have to make the three-hour drive for training in Melbourne as often. The visitors may include multiple Commonwealth Games gold medallist Laetisha Scanlan, with whom he combined to win the world title last year in mixed trap pairs. The event will make its Olympics debut in Japan.

The target machines are worth more than $100,000, with sponsors helping to cover costs.

“I’ve had a lot of help so it hasn’t cost me that much. But it has been a big investment,” he said. “I’ve taken out a loan … one of my sponsors is a bank so I’ve had support from them as well.”

Whether Willett’s foresight gives him an edge at his second Olympics is as unknown as everything else right now but Mark is convinced of his quality, declaring him “the best shot I’ve seen since Michael Diamond”.

Image: Willett hopes to turn World Cup medals into an Olympic podium finish.

No Australian man has won Olympic shooting gold since Diamond collected his second trap title in Sydney 20 years ago but Willett can already be mentioned in the same sentence. He shot a perfect men’s trap qualifying score of 125 out of 125 at a World Cup meeting in Mexico last year. Diamond is the only other Australian to achieve the feat.

The only issue with the backyard range is the lack of competition. It’s why Mark has encouraged Willett to occasionally turn up unannounced at a local shooting event at nearby Corowa, or other places around the Murray, just to “flog the locals”.

“Every now and then he doesn’t win and they put it in the paper that James Willett turned up and he finished third in the local club comp,” Mark said. “But that’s one in 20 times.”

If those excursions have endeared him to the local community, they also helped with the construction of what might end up being a gold medal factory in his backyard.

“Most people these days, the last thing they want next door to do is a shooting range,” Mark said.

“A lot of people don’t think it helps your property value. But up in Mulwala, they’ve embraced it.”

Source: The Age
By: Chris Barrett
Date: 25 May 2020