Eatonton native Vincent Hancock smiles and waves to the crowd after winning skeet gold Tuesday in London, becoming the first skeet shooter to win back-to-back golds in Olympic history.
LONDON — Vincent Hancock nearly retired from competition a year ago, then — at the prodding of his wife, Leesburg’s own Rebekah Young — decided to chase another Olympic gold medal.
At 23, Hancock, who was born and raised in Georgia in a small town about 40 minutes north of Macon called Eatonton, is a two-time Olympic champion in men’s skeet shooting, successfully defending his crown Tuesday with a score of 148 to take the top spot at the London Games. Already the world record-holder, setting it in 2007, Hancock broke his Olympic record in the final qualifying round with a score of 123 (out of a possible 125) total targets hit.
“Being able to stand back up there again and listen to the national anthem again, it’s got to be better,” said Hancock, a U.S. Army sergeant and the first skeet shooter in history to win consecutive Olympic gold medals. “But it hasn’t set in fully yet.”
Hancock’s win gave the U.S. a skeet sweep after Kimberly Rhode won the women’s competition earlier this week.
After setting an Olympic record with a score of 123 out of a possible 125 in qualifying Tuesday, Hancock entered the medal round with a one-target lead. When Golding missed, Hancock’s lead was two with seven targets remaining.
In skeet, that’s massive.
“I had no chance,” Golding said.
Frank Thompson of Alliance, Neb., failed to reach the final, placing eighth in qualifying with a score of 119, one target shy of getting into a shoot-off for the final spot in the medal round.
Hancock was by far the youngest competitor in the final. At 23, he is five years younger than anyone else in the field and 14 years younger than the average of the medal-round qualifiers, who range from 28 to 43.
Hancock clinched this win on his next-to-last shot, made his last for good measure, then spun around and punched the air in celebration.
At the Beijing Games, he may have been a bit of a surprise winner, even though he was already a world champion. In London, he was the favorite, looked the part and made good on a promise uttered at a rally in his native Georgia four years ago. He told well-wishers there that in 2012, he’d give them reason to celebrate again.
Yep, he hit that target as well.
“I told him when I got out there and hugged him, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” U.S. coach Todd Graves said. “And I’ve seen a lot.”
Hancock and Graves did what they could to stay calm during the hour-or-so gap between qualifying and the final. After Golding’s miss in the medal round, everyone knew it was basically over. Only then could Graves exhale — a little, anyway.
“When you give a two-bird lead to him, it’s kind of hard to take it from him, you know what I’m sayin’?” Graves said. “He’s pretty tough with a lead. He’s pretty tough when he doesn’t have a lead.”
A year ago, what was toughest for Hancock was finding motivation to keep competing.
So much has changed since he was the wide-eyed teen in Beijing. He and his wife now have two small children. He’s been busy planning for life after his military service ends, setting up private sponsorships for when he leaves the Army in November and working with his father to set up a shooting academy in Georgia.
“I wasn’t enjoying myself going out there anymore,” Hancock said. “I didn’t want to go train, and for this sport you have to be dedicated to your training.”
At the end of the year, he said, he knew he had to figure something out.
“So my wife and I reassessed what we wanted to do,” he said. “We prayed about it a lot, and we came up with, ‘This is my passion. This is what I love to do, every single day.’”
So does the direction change now?
Not a chance.
“Just keep going,” Hancock said. “Win as many medals as possible and hopefully build my legacy.”