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Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Updated: July 14, 10:50 PM ET
Age is an advantage in shooting

By Greg Garber

She retired from the Washington, D.C., police force as a captain last August, but stress still visits Libby Callahan on a regular basis.

Libby Callahan
Libby Callahan, shown stretching before shooting, says she's only better with experience.
After flying across the country from California on Wednesday -- she presided as godmother in her great niece's baptismal ceremony -- Callahan got caught in construction on the Beltway and didn't get home until 2:30 in the morning.

And now, less than six hours later on Thursday, she's (politely) answering the same, tired questions she's been hearing for years. Sample: Is she proud to be appearing in her third Olympics?

"Well, yes," Callahan says from her Upper Marlboro, Md., home.

Quite frankly, she would rather be standing on the firing line, looking down the sight of her .22-caliber Walther pistol and firmly squeezing the trigger -- something she probably did in the neighborhood of 120,000 times over the last year.

Callahan will represent the United States next month in Athens in the sport pistol and air pistol. This is a remarkable achievement, of course, but consider:

At 52, Elizabeth Callahan is the oldest Olympian on the American roster.

Think of all the things that start to deteriorate as the years mount. Strength, reflexes, power, eyesight, nerve. Shooting might not seem like a strenuous sport in the manner of track and field or swimming, but it requires all of the above, and more. Somehow, Callahan has suspended the aging process.

"In shooting, the more seasoned a person is, the more experience they have, it can be an advantage -- as opposed to a teenager," Callahan said. "It's very much a mental game; you have to be in some kind of shape. Usually, you'll see champions in their late 20s and 30s."

Sure, but how does she account for her success in the 40s and 50s? Callahan placed 37th in sport pistol the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and 23rd in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She qualified for the 2004 team in early June with a second-place finish in the final Olympic selection match at Fort Benning in Georgia.

"I'm a very competitive person," Callahan said, "and I still have a strong desire to compete. I'm motivated to get up and practice and compete every day -- I have that self-discipline."

In previous years, Callahan's police job -- she was a crowd-control expert -- occupied most of her time. After retiring, the slight woman with a blonde bun has been free to focus on shooting.

She has averaged perhaps 500 shots a day, six days a week for 40 weeks. It's nearly six hours a day of shooting -- she will often take up a position near the front door of her house and shoot at an outside target 10 meters away, through her patio door. Usually, she spends 90 minutes doing cardiovascular work and, often, weightlifting.

This is all part of the process, but in the end, shooting is about focus. Adrenaline, the juice that drives so many sporting achievements, is very much the enemy.

When Callahan is aiming, what is she thinking?

"The only thing I'm doing," she said, "is trying not to think too much. You want everything to be automatic. Basically, you're letting your subconscious do everything. If you start thinking too much you can get into trouble.

"Shooting is kind of the opposite of most sports. Adrenaline isn't good. It's a matter of controlling the muscles and the heart rate. In the spectrum of sports, I personally believe it's just as difficult as some of the other disciplines."

She grew up in Columbia, S.C., with seven brothers and sisters. The brothers regularly went hunting, but Callahan never pulled a trigger until she attended the police academy in 1975, at the age of 23. Five years later, her friends on the force introduced her to the sport. Soon, she was winning local police competitions. In 1985, she joined the Army reserve (she's a staff sergeant) and was exposed to international, Olympic-style shooting. Three years later, she became a member of the U.S. shooting team and by 1992, qualified for the Barcelona Olympics and, four years later, Atlanta. Her resumé is bulging with titles, from the Pan American Games to the World Cup and World Championships.

You want some irony? After more than 28 years on the job in D.C., she never, ever fired her gun on the beat -- despite a tour in the tense Fourth District and regular work with the district's Emergency Response Team.

And now, the 52-year-old retiree is set to fly across the Atlantic for her third Olympic competition. How many of the baby-boomers out there can say that?

"Not everybody could do it, or want to do it at my age," Callahan said. "I attribute it to my perseverance. I do what I have to do to compete."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for