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COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER OLYMPICS --- 2 DAYS: Vincent's got his gun back

Eatonton native Vincent Hancock aims his gun during the shoot off for the gold medal in the skeet finals during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Hancock brought the gold back to Georgia, and now he’s the favorite to do it again in London. (File photo)

Eatonton native Vincent Hancock aims his gun during the shoot off for the gold medal in the skeet finals during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Hancock brought the gold back to Georgia, and now he’s the favorite to do it again in London. (File photo)

EDITOR'S NOTE: In preparation for the start of the 2012 Summer Olympics, The Herald will count down the days until the Games begin Friday in London with at least one preview or feature in each day’s sports section about the athletes and their stories that make the Olympic Games so special. Enjoy!

By Michael Lough/Macon Telegraph

MACON — The sun and heat couldn’t really conquer the crowd gathered on the square in Eatonton.

The people were just too happy.

Vincent Hancock had been back in his home country for less than two weeks when his hometown celebrated his gold-medal performance in skeet shooting event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Considering Hancock was a 19-year-old winner of gold in his Olympic debut, his thoughts to the future weren’t really a stretch.

“I guess y’all know we’re gonna do this again in four years,” Hancock told fans in front of the Putnam County Courthouse on that Friday morning of Aug. 29, 2008. “So get ready to convene again here in four years.”

Hancock is back on the clock to back up that prophecy, having left this past Friday for training in Denmark before heading to London for the opening ceremonies.

But within a year after standing on the podium in Beijing and a makeshift stage in Eatonton, hopes for a repeat performance began dissipating, and Hancock’s young and astounding career was nearly kaput.

“I had accomplished my dream, my ultimate goal,” Hancock said recently, reflecting on 2008. “I didn’t know where to go after that.”

First, he went where he was told — literally — which meant a whirlwind post-Olympics flurry. On a normal month, the sergeant in the Army’s Marksmanship Unit was on the road about 10 days for assorted competitions. But for the first few months after the Olympics, home was a long-distance location.

“The worst part was after the Olympics, with the Army pushing us so much,” he said. “September, October, November, December, all the way through about May of 2009, they had us going on something it seemed almost every weekend. That’s how much we were gone.”

That stretch concluded in the middle of the shooting season, so Hancock was unable to prepare, physically and mentally, as he had for so long.

“He was kind of dead on his feet,” said his wife, Rebekah Hancock, a Leesburg native whose maiden name was Young. “He was so tired and training so much. He was trained out, I guess you could say.”

Barely a year after winning the gold, the then-20-year-old was staring at the early stages of a major case of burnout.

“I really was not happy, not pleased with the way I was shooting, how I felt, the way it was feeling, everything about it,” he said. “Just didn’t want to do it. But I had to keep shooting through it.”

The head-turning success at the Olympics became enigmatic.

“I kind of just rode the high of winning the Olympics for about a year and a half afterward,” he said. “I won the world championships to the day a year later after the Olympics, and then I made every final in 2010.”

Still, he was coming up short.

“I pulled down, I think, only one medal,” he said of 2010. “And then last year, it kind of all hit bottom, and I had some of the worst competitions that I’ve ever had in my shooting career.”

The harried schedule was joined by life, adulthood and circumstance.

In late spring of 2010, there was an injury to his left shoulder. Physical therapy and working out didn’t fix it, and time to have that addressed by surgery has been nonexistent, so he has learned to live, and shoot, with it.

Then he and Rebekah, who were married on May 31, 2008, not long before the Olympics, became parents to Bailey on Aug. 27, 2010. Vincent’s mind sped faster, and his ability to, as he says, compartmentalize things had all but disappeared.

“I wasn’t enjoying myself at all,” he said. “Didn’t even want to be out there even in the competitions.”

His wife saw it.

“He wasn’t himself when he went out onto the range,” she said. “Before, when Vince and I were dating and first got married — when I would go to a shoot (with him) — he was a totally different person. When he stepped out of that car and onto the range, he was a different person. Then he would get off the range and be his same old self.

“But he wasn’t like that anymore.”

Those emotions, the burnout and frustration, festered and needed an escape.

“Outside of talking to my wife, I don’t let anybody see or feel what I’m feeling,” he said. “I hold everything in and just try to deal with it the best I can on my own. She’s the one that took the brunt of ... I’m not an angry person by any means, but just the emotion that came out of me, just not wanting to do anything, moping around all day long and all that, it really wasn’t healthy for us.”

Rebekah saw that lack of fire, absence of being in a zone, and they sat down and talked.

“We had skirted around the issue for a while, and we never really sat down and addressed it,” she said. “Once we did, (I said), ‘If this is what you want to do, then you need to put your game face back on and you need to get it done.’ ”

While it was only a little more involved than that, the cloud nevertheless lifted. His competitive fire returned, boosted by the adjusted set of priorities for a man grateful for his better half.

“My wife and I learned a lot from each other,” he said. “We went through some ups and downs in our relationship, as well. We’re better now than I think we ever have been.

“I know we are.”

Vincent went back to square one in almost every phase of his shooting, from training to routines to outlook. At times, he was 19 again, when he had the confidence and brashness of youth that had been transferred to humility, which he believes eventually had a negative impact. He’s back to a quiet confidence entering competition, which didn’t change with the birth in February of their second child, Brenlyn.

“We bought a house, we got a dog, we have two kids now,” Hancock said of life’s path since winning the gold. “It took me awhile to figure out everything.”

He apparently has.

Even an early year competition when he lost a shootout for third place and failed to gain a medal was a huge and welcomed step forward.

“I was just glad to be back there and have the confidence in knowing that if I hadn’t gotten robbed by one target, I would have been in the medals,” he said. “Having done that, I had the confidence to keep rolling.”

And he did, turning the clock back to those late teens with nearly every competition.

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When he captured the gold medal in 2008, Vincent Hancock won it in a shoot off, going a perfect 4-for-4 on his targets. Hancock was in similar form at the recent U.S. trials, hitting 270 of 275 possible targets to win and secure his Olympic bid.

In May, he missed only five out of 275 targets and won the Olympic trials to qualify, becoming the second member of Team U.S.A. to do so.

The first part of the trials took place in Texas, and he headed to Tucson, Ariz., with a three-target lead. He cruised, much to the joy if not pleasant surprise of Team U.S.A. head shotgun coach Bret Erickson.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen it in the last couple or three years,” Erickson said in a story on the competition written by the U.S. Army media department. “Obviously, when you spend your life shooting for an Olympic gold medal and then he goes in 2008 and does it, it’s like, ‘What do I do now?’ And you see him just kind of sitting back and saying, ‘All right, I’ve already been there and done that.’ And you let up. You have to. You can’t keep that intensity for year after year after year.”

But it had returned.

“I told him, ‘You’ve got that attitude back, you’ve got that confidence and determination back, and you’re scaring people,’ ” Rebekah said. “They’re scared of him when he walks out on the range. He has them beat already.”

His performance earlier this month at the nationals in Colorado Springs at the USA Shooting National Championships was further evidence.

Vincent missed one target — out in 275 — tying his national record.

“If I can do that at the Olympics,” he began, “then nobody can come close to me.”

That is the outlook that led to gold four years — albeit four long years ago.

“I have the same confidence level I had four years ago,” Hancock said. “Everything’s completely different. It’s about 180 degrees of what it was. But my confidence level in my shooting is back to at least the same level as it was — it may be even be higher now.

“I’ve been shooting so good over the past six months or so. I’ve already won (gold) once. There’s no reason to tell myself that I’m not going to win it again.”

Rebekah, herself now a veteran of one Olympiad as well, is even more confident.

“He’s gotten so much experience underneath his belt the past four years that he didn’t have in 2008,” she said. “I think he’s shooting so much better than he was then, and he’s got the capabilities of shooting even better, even though he was setting all the world records then.

“I know he can go back and do it all over again.”

And thus, the square in Eatonton sits ready and waiting.