Don Nygord pointed his military-issue .45 caliber pistol and drew a bead on a bottle cap resting on a rock about 50 yards away. He promised a dead hit. Others in his Air Force squad gathered for the impromptu sharpshooting exhibition.
Nygord fired and the bullet skipped off the rock, missing the intended target.
At the time, the episode was embarrassing for Nygord. He had often told his colleagues of his "plinking" adventures in Oregon. "Plinking" is slang for taking informal target practice by shooting at objects such as bottles or cans.
"I'm sure that one time I must have hit a bottle cap on a rock that was an incredible distance away," recalls Nygord, who joined the base pistol team for remedial training. "You never forget those times."
Nygord, a resident of La Crescenta, left his job as an aerospace engineer 10 years ago and began a shooting odyssey which has taken him to Europe, Australia and the Soviet Union. He was the 1981 Air Pistol World Champion and has won 10 medals in the Pan American Games. He has made the U. S. national team 10 consecutive years.
At 52, Nygord has proved himself in almost every major pistol competition. His only Olympic appearence, however, was disappointing. He finished 12th in the Free Pistol competition in 1984. For Nygord, a chance at redemption comes next month in Seoul, South Korea, where he'll feel much less pressure than he felt in 1984.
Nygord said the competition four years ago was simply too close to home. "It was double the pressure because it was in America," he said. "They'd been hoopla-ing and blowing smoke at you for a month or two before the Games.
"Our coach said one of the most stupid things I've ever heard, 'Just pretend this is any other match.' Oh yeah, right."
The public, Nygord says, is often misinformed about the act of shooting a pistol, most notably by "cop and robber" television shows.
"You see some awfully silly things on TV," he said.
And, he adds, the sport is considerably safer than most others. When he goes to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., he is reminded of this.
"I see the cyclists coming in all bandaged up and hobbling and the track and field people on crutches," he said. "Thank God I'm a shooter--you can get hurt doing that stuff."
But the sport is not without it's drawbacks, the most obvious being pressure, though it's difficult to imagine Nygord being effected. His speech and motions are calm and deliberate.
He flips down his shooting glasses, which are standard among marksman. The right lens of the eye wear aids his depth perception in dim light. He slowly raises his 2.2-pound pistol, the handle of which resembles that of a swashbuckler's rapier. Nygord hand-crafted the handle to the exact specifications of his grasp. To the unpracticed eye, it is nearly impossible to detect any motion in the barrel--it is perfectly still.
Nygord says the Olympic motto, Higher, Stronger, Faster, should be modified to Quietness, Calmer, More Still, for pistol shooters.
In order to maintain his steadiness, Nygord is on an upper-body weightlifting program. In addition, he rides an exercise bicycle to increase his aerobic capacity. But Nygord hasn't had to work for every advantage--he feels he has a near-perfect pistol shooter's body.
As near-perfect as a human can be, that is. He describes the ideal shooter as having 12-inch round pods for feet and a 20-power telescope for a right eye. He should be thick and stocky. His left arm could be vestigial, except for occasional loading.
"He'd look kind of like me," Nygord smiles. Nygord, however, has two healthy arms. So healthy, in fact, that his forearms, strengthened from years of training, resemble Popeye's.
Competitive pistol shooting is mentally taxing as well. In competition, a shooter is given 2 1/2 hours to fire 60 shots at a round target. The shooter may decide to rest or wait for optimal wind conditions, or he may opt to fire his rounds at a relatively rapid pace of one per minute.
A 10-shot final was added to increase spectator appeal. The top eight finishers from the 60-shot course shoot 10 shots on the command of the range officer. The final, adopted two years ago, is much quicker and more interesting for most fans to watch.
Nygord says the sport has yet to win mass appeal in the U. S. but is popular elsewhere. In fact, while walking through an airport in Moscow, he was recognized as the U. S. champion by a Soviet fan.
Nygord was thrilled. "Your head blows up to about three times the size," he said.
And, though he was often overlooked in high school, his classmates know him now.
"I was too small for football, too short for basketball," he said. "But now, the captain of the football team who got all the girls is fat and bald and I'm on the Olympic team."