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Nebraska Coach, Olympian Beats World’s Best Markswoman
When the phone rang on March 28, Ross Hicks was doing what he always does on Fridays – selling nuts and bolts at the Ace Hardware Store in Spanaway, Wash.
Cameron Hicks, his youngest son and a senior telecommunications major on a rifle scholarship at Murray State University, was calling from Kentucky. Ross, the store manager, was handed the phone. Before Cameron said anything, he told his dad he should probably sit down. Then he delivered the important news.
"Dad, the World Cup just ended in Rio de Janeiro. Morgan won. She won the gold medal!" said Cameron, who had just received a text message from a Nebraska rifle team member who was watching the competition in Brazil live on the Internet.
Ross Hicks showed as much excitement as you can when customers are still looking for plumbing and electrical supplies right next to you. So he got away for a minute to call his wife, Janet, a registered nurse who was working in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit at nearby Tacoma General Hospital. "When I called and told her the good news, she immediately went to tears," Ross said. "We’re proud of all three of our kids, but we were so happy for Morgan. All we could think was all of her hard work – and all of our prayers – paid off."
Morgan, the head coach for the Nebraska Rifle Team that recently finished fourth in the NCAA Championships at West Point, N.Y., knew her parents would be just as excited as they were when they watched her compete at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. They didn’t make it to Rio, choosing instead to save their money and vacation time for what they’re hoping will be a repeat trip to the Olympics this summer in Beijing.
The expectation meter is spinning faster than ever in the Hicks’ household and at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and there’s good reason. Lidija Mihajlovic of Serbia finished second in the World Cup, and she can’t blame it on Rio. Mihajlovic, the world’s No. 1-ranked markswoman in 50-meter three-position rifle, came back strong in the finals, but not strong enough to catch Hicks, who entered the final round of the International Shooting Sports Federation (ISSF) event tied for second and third place.
To give you an idea of how grueling the competition can be, Charlotte Jakobsen of Denmark was the leader after two rounds, but fell all the way to eighth in final scoring.
"I still can’t believe I came back and won and did it with all those cameras in front of me and all those people behind me," Morgan said. "I knew it was being broadcast on the Internet around the world, so the whole match, I just kept telling myself to take one shot at a time and not to think about the score or the possible outcome.
"It’s all about focus, discipline and determination, and I kept my composure to the end. The pressure was incredible, and the result still seems almost unbelievable. Winning gold in the World Cup means so much to me, my family, my friends and all the people who have supported me at Nebraska. I love what I do, and I’m very happy living and coaching in Lincoln. I’m glad our team had an opportunity to watch the World Cup. They know what kind of pressure there is shooting every shot within 75 seconds and hearing fans cheer when their favorite hits the target."
The target, from 50 meters away, is a bulls-eye the size of a dime and rifle isn’t like golf, where everyone becomes silent when someone is striking the ball. "You have to block out every single sound, and sometimes that’s not easy," offered Hicks, who said the best thing about winning the World Cup was showing her team that "if I can do it, you can do it, too. It just takes hours and hours of practice and incredible commitment."
In Rio, Hicks used her 22-calibre, 13-pound Anschutz rifle for 60 pressure-packed shots. She had 20 shots in each of three positions, scoring 198 points laying down, 190 standing and 193 kneeling to finish with 581 of a possible 600 points. In the final 10-shot round, she scored 96.9 more points to win with a total of 677.9.
"Buying those guns was expensive, but proved to be good investments for all three of our kids," Ross said, acknowledging that it costs about $18,000 to equip oldest son Graham, Morgan and Cameron with competitive rifles. "They all loved doing it, so it upped the ante, but I guess it’s a pittance when you figure they all got college rifle scholarships."
Graham, 28, works in Atlanta after competing in rifle for Jacksonville (Ala.) State University. Morgan, a 2004 Murray State graduate, earned eight All-America honors and won the 2004 NCAA air rifle title before finishing 12th in the small-bore competition at the 2004 Olympics. She served as Murray State’s rifle coach from 2005-07 before taking the Nebraska head coaching job last fall. Cameron will graduate this spring after following in his sister’s footsteps on the Racers’ Rifle Team.
The Hicks brothers each earned 75-percent athletic scholarships while Morgan earned a full ride – a major haul especially when you consider the whole family got into the sport by accident.
"Graham needed something to do one summer after baseball season," Ross recalled. "We all like to hunt and fish, including Morgan, so I thought it might be a good idea to let Graham take a junior shooting program at the Paul Bunyan Rifle Range in Tacoma. In two years he became a pretty good shooter."
Morgan, two years younger than Graham, enjoyed watching her brother shoot. "She was a really good softball player at the time, so I said she ought to give rifle a try because she’s very competitive in anything she goes after, whether it’s softball, tennis, bowling, volleyball, fishing, hunting, even flag football."
Hearing his father’s suggestion, Graham made a classic big-brother mistake. "Girls can’t shoot," he said.
"I knew when he said it that’s all it would take for Morgan to go after it," Ross said. "She accepts every challenge, and once she gets a taste of winning, she figures she has to be at the top. Graham had a two-year jump on her. It took her a year before she started to beat him, and she’s never looked back."
The sport of rifle gained what softball lost. "Morgan had her heart set on a college softball scholarship, and I think she would have earned one," her father said. "She was the leading hitter on a good team that played 77 games a summer all over the state of Washington. She was a good center fielder, too. But she was trying to do it all at the young age of 14. I told her she was going to have to choose between one sport or the other."
Morgan knew the answer before her dad even popped the question. "I knew rifle was my best opportunity beyond college," she said. "It was a really difficult decision for me to make because I love softball. But I also dreamed about the Olympics, and I figured if I worked hard every day, maybe it could happen."
The owner of a laundry list of National Rifle Association records, Morgan said rifle already has helped her achieve five of her six competitive lifetime goals – winning a state high school championship (three times) at Roy, Wash.; earning a college athletic scholarship, winning an NCAA title, making the U.S. Olympic team and being a head coach at a Division 1 university. Her quest to achieve that sixth major goal – earn a medal in the Olympic Games – begins May 18 at the U.S. Olympic Rifle Trials in Ft. Benning, Ga.
Her biggest competitor there will be Jamie Beylere, 23, who has been training 2 1/2 years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "We’ve gone back and forth beating each other over the past year," Hicks said. Beylere also qualified for the World Cup, but decided not to go and was replaced by Amy Sowash, who finished a surprising sixth at the World Cup. Hicks’ gold was her first medal ever in World Cup competition.
Ross Hicks said his daughter loves everything she does. "She loves animals, and she’s great with people," he said. "I can’t tell you how many times kids and their parents would come up to us after a shoot and tell us how Morgan took the time to answer their questions and give them advice. Before she became a coach, she could take that time to help, and sometimes she was the only one who would."
A kind and gentle Morgan Hicks also has a tenacious and unrelenting side. Once, when she broke her wrist in volleyball, she still competed in a soft cast.
"I grew up trying to outdo my brother in anything we tried, whether it was climbing a tree or shooting a rifle," she said. "It helped because rifle is the only NCAA sport where men and women compete against each other. It’s helped internationally, too. I call rifle a sport for life – whether you’re young or old. At the World Cup, I was competing against a 17-year-old as well a woman in her 40s and every other age in between."
The Hicks still live on a farm near Roy, population 279, and no stop signs. For years, they raised more than 5,000 ducks and sold the eggs as an Oriental delicacy. "All three kids had chores and worked hard," Ross Hicks said. "We grew dahlias, and Morgan would pick ‘em and put ‘em in a lockbox at the end of the driveway for $2 a bouquet. She did it on the honor system, and would sell about 20 bouquets a day – good enough money that the boys also wanted in on the action."
"All of us have a great work ethic," Morgan said, "and even though we sold our duck business for a healthy profit, we all still work hard."
For Morgan, the ultimate reward for her hard work came four years ago when she competed in Athens. Right before the Opening Ceremonies, she almost had to pinch herself when Yao Ming, China’s 7-foot-6 center, walked by. She also stood next to USA teammate Andy Roddick. Until this week, she had no idea the tennis superstar is a devout Nebraska football fan. Of course, at the time, she never envisioned herself coaching at a place like Nebraska.
While red is her favorite color now, Morgan said blue is the predominant USA Olympic color. In Athens, she wore a blue skirt, red USA shirt with blue jacket, blue suede USA shoes and a blue USA beret. "The feeling was indescribable when the Olympic torch went right by us," Morgan recalled. "I still remember them stopping us in the tunnel and hearing people chant ‘USA’ before we walked out and the stadium erupted. It seemed like hundreds of thousands of flashes went off all at once all around the stadium. I didn’t know where to look or where to walk. I know Nebraska has the most famous Tunnel Walk for football, but I sure enjoyed the Tunnel Walk I experienced for my country."
The village of Roy threw a parade for its most famous citizen and even put up a sign that says: "Welcome to Roy, Home of Olympian Morgan Hicks."
"I’m pretty driven about getting to Beijing this summer," she said. "I know I can do better there than I did in Athens. I’m four years older, and I’m much more prepared. I just need to make sure I get there first."