Taking Her Shot At Gold: UAF Rifle Team Alum In Tokyo Summer Olympics
The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Even while fishing in Georgia where the Army specialist is now stationed, Sagen Maddalena reps the gear of her college alma mater, University of Alaska Fairbanks. She starred for the rifle team and has qualified for three-position rifle event in the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Her event starts on Friday. (SAGEN MADDALENA)
PHOTO BY MICHELLE LUNATO/U.S. ARMY
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Sagen Maddalena’s road to Tokyo might have been paved in Alaska. Maddalena, a specialist in the U.S. Army, will represent Team USA’s shooting team in the 2020 Summer Olympics, delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but scheduled to begin on July 23. Shooting competitions start July 24, and the 27-year-old from California qualified for Tokyo in the three-position rifle event that begins on Friday, July 30 at 7 p.m. Alaska time.
“Wearing the red, white and blue, that’s going to be where my thoughts are,” she says. “It’s a privilege and an honor, and definitely I’m excited to represent the Army, my state, my family.”
Her state, of course, is first and foremost California, where she grew up. But the state known as the Last Frontier is also part of who Maddalena is today as a skilled marksperson and a medal hopeful in Tokyo.
Urged by her service rifle coach in California, she carried a borrowed .22 and an air rifle she bought with summer job earnings and headed north to try and walk on to the University of Alaska Fairbanks rifle team.
“That was, all I can say, luck at the time,” she says of how she got there and what the experience did for her career, one that could be just taking off.
THE COMMUNITY OF GROVELAND, located in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Range and known as the “gateway” to Yosemite National Park, was an outdoor paradise for young Sagen Maddalena.
Her dad Randy got her hooked on fly fishing, but it was another family member who inspired her in a different activity.
“A big part of it goes to my grandpa. He kind of got me out there shooting and he showed me a lot of the safety part of it and the enjoyment of it,” she says.
Sagen joined her local 4-H club and participated in the traditional raising of livestock. She started with sheep, then pigs, and she especially got into taking care of breeding goats (her family also owned horses and she participated in equestrian programs). But the 4-H also sponsored a .22 long rifle shooting program that Maddalena was excited to enroll in. It was mostly a safety class with some competitive events, but it opened new doors.
“The big thing was, the junior rifle service team (California Grizzlies) ran that program, or assisted in running that program,” she says. “It was kind of like a football team and they recruited juniors who were interested in shooting. ‘OK, I want to go a little further in this.’”
Maddalena found herself competing – and holding her own – against older 4-H competitors. And then the invite came to join the California Grizzlies service rifle team.
“Once I went to my first match there, I was hooked at that point,” she says.
Still, as she was mostly home- schooled, Maddalena wasn’t sure if shooting could turn into something else. She wanted to enlist in the Army eventually, but preferred to get a college education first. That’s when her service rifle coach, Robert Taylor, had an idea that would change everything.
PHOTOS BY MICHELLE LUNATO/U.S. ARMY)
THE OLYMPIC GAMES TELL us so much about an athlete’s character. From Jesse Owens, the sprinter who stuck it to Adolph Hitler’s white supremacy propaganda in Berlin; to unlikely wrestling Olympic champion Rulon Gardner; to the sheer dominance of gymnastics star Simone Biles. Maddalena may or may not join them as American medalists, but she found humor when asked about how quickly she caught onto shooting.
“Not at all. Terrible,” was how she described her performance early on. “One thing that still sticks in my mind is the (4-H) instructor we had running the .22 program told everybody in the group in our lesson before we went to the range was – and he was talking to me – to be able to shoot standing you have to love standing. So I pretty much told myself from that time on, ‘I love shooting standing.’”
She made sacrifices to get better. Between her practice time on the range and livestock duties, Maddalena admits she had little time to do what kids her age do and hang out with friends. She also credits her parents, Randy and Susan, for attending all those county fairs – “I’m pretty sure there were better things to do at that time,” Sagen says of her mom. “She sacrificed a lot to be there.”
Sagen also was thankful Randy wasn’t a “helicopter dad” who “never hovered” at events and got too involved in the proceedings.
“It was my drive; it wasn’t their drive,” she says. “They were always just there to support, so I was fortunate to have that.”
Maddalena was also inspired by her service rifle team coach Taylor, who offered some of the best advice of her life.
“‘Look: You have a choice to make. You can be the best here; the best as a service rifle shooter,” Maddalena recalls Taylor telling her. “Or you can expand out and you can try shooting in college … You can (someday possibly) shoot in the Olympics and take your competitive nature out farther.”
UAF, one of the most storied rifle programs in the NCAA, checked a lot of boxes. The school offered a program Maddalena wanted to major in (natural resources management), so together coach and athlete reached out to then Nanooks head coach Dan Jordan (we previously profiled him: Alaska Sporting Journal, March 2015).
“I told him I was interested, my experience and what I had under my belt, and I told him where I wanted to get to and the goals that I had,” Maddalena says. “I wrote it all out in an email and he gave me a call. He gave me a chance. He said, ‘You can come up here and compete as a walk-on.’”
So with her borrowed .22 and that air rifle she purchased, Sagen and her mom headed to Fairbanks to try out. Jordan liked what he saw, Maddalena made the team as a non-scholarship athlete, and she redshirted in the 2013-14 season.
That time proved invaluable to watch her older Nanooks teammates in action at a prestigious program (UAF has won 10 NCAA team titles and finished second four more times). Match days meant Maddalena could watch the action from the sidelines. Then when it ended, she’d stick around.
“I’d watch them compete, shoot. They would pack up and leave and I would go on the range and shoot my match and be there until like 10 or 11 (p.m.), just shooting my match and seeing how I did amongst their scores. That’s how I pushed myself. They drove me to be better.”
In her four years competing, Maddalena became an eight-time All-American in both air and smallbore rifle and earned her degree in natural resources management with a minor in forestry.
She also immersed herself in the Alaskan lifestyle. Despite being a shooter, fishing was always Maddalena’s first love. Though she vows to come back someday and catch a massive Alaska salmon, she caught plenty of grayling and trout during trips to the Delta Clearwater River and other local fisheries.
“I remember going out to the Clearwater and I was out there fly fishing.
I was walking back to the truck and thought, ‘Wow. My feet are cold,’” she says. “I had the waders on and the thick socks. I was appropriately dressed. And I got back to the truck and was eventually able to unfreeze my shoelaces so I could get my shoes off. But I had a half-inch of ice underneath my socks built up.”
It’s a feeling only an Alaskan – even a transplant from California – can truly appreciate. Maddalena savored her solo hikes when she packed her snowshoes and shotgun and headed out for some bird hunting.
“I had a 12-gauge and I’d hunt for grouse for dinner. And my poor roommates; I’d sit on the back porch of our apartment and take the feathers out of the grouse,” she says. “We had feathers all over the place. But that was my thing: just go out and start walking.”
As for her time in Alaska’s outdoors, Maddalena used the word clarity to describe the overall experience.
“You’re so close to just, I want to say nature, but that’s not the right word for it. You get into the truck and drive somewhere and then get out and start walking,” she
says. “And you’re just 30 minutes from town. You can look up in the sky and the color is a little more blue or a little more crisp. And I always really enjoyed that part of it. It’s just a different place.”
TOKYO MARKS AN ENDGAME to Maddalena’s journey from rural California to Japan via Fairbanks, Alaska. All the 4-H lessons, the service rifle team success and her perseverance to make it work at the college level will come to fruition when she heads across the Pacific for the pandemic-delayed Summer Games.
Specialist Maddalena loves her current career in the Army. She’s stationed at Georgia’s Fort Benning, and when she’s not training – she missed out at 2016’s smallbore rifle Olympic Trials before joining teammate Mary Tucker as Team USA’s 2020 air rifle participants – Maddalena is proudly a member of the International Army Rifle Team.
“It wasn’t anything that was in the family (as a military background). But I’ve always been patriotic, I guess. Just growing up and being in that rural
community, and I always looked up to the sacrifices that soldiers gave,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of that, and so to have that opportunity to be a competitor and shoot nationally, to compete around the world and represent the Army and my country at the same time, that’s hands down a huge drive. A huge reason why I compete.”
And what about that upcoming competition in Tokyo?
“Just to make the team, that’s kind of like a ticket to the dance, right? It’s only the first step. However, it’s a step that can be hard to get to,” says Maddalena, who referred to her 2016 near-miss as a “taste.”
“And now, having more than that taste and really getting it in my grasp and getting that ticket to go, it really doesn’t feel like anything special. It’s like, ‘OK. NowIgettogotowork.Igettoshowwho I am among the greatest out there.’” ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on USA Shooting, go to usashooting.org. The Tokyo Olympics shooting competition website is at olympics .com/tokyo-2020/en/sports/shooting.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
Olympic shooting medalists Ginny Thrasher (top) and Californian Kim Rhode (below) have both inspired Sagen Maddalena to go for a medal in the Tokyo Summer Olympics. (GINNY THRASHER.COM/MEDIA)
Rhode is one of the most decorated female Olympians of all time.
(PATTI WATKINS, INSPIRED STUDIOS, VIA USA SHOOTING)
Americans haven’t dominated Olympic shooting’s medal table historically as in other sports such
as basketball, swimming and track and field. But Team USA has a recent trend of women who have made the podium. Jamie Lynn Corkish (nee Gray) won gold in 2012’s London Games’ three-position rifle event; Alaska’s Corey Cogdell-Unrein has two bronze medals in trap shooting
in 2008 (Beijing) and 2016 (Rio de Janeiro); Ginny Thrasher was the 2016 Olympic champion in
air rifle; and Sagen Maddalena’s fellow Californian Kim Rhode (six medals, three gold, in six different Olympics) is the sport’s most successful female Olympian and the only woman to medal in six consecutive games (1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio).
Rhode and Thrasher particularly have been great role models to Maddalena as she takes her shot at a Tokyo medal.
“Kim Rhode, I remember we were competing at the world championships in Granada, Spain. And we were traveling back together to the United States. I can’t say exactly what she said, but it had to do with loving what you do and enjoying the moment,” Maddalena says. “She also talked about how qualifying is just the first step. Getting into that final and just enjoying it. At least that’s what I took out of it. I don’t know if that’s what she was trying to relay, but that’s what I took from the conversation that we had. That was a big thing for me to learn, the enjoyment aspect of it.”
Thrasher and Maddalena are somewhat rivals in their discipline, and the latter will try to follow up the former’s unlikely 2016 air rifle gold in Brazil. Thrasher also competed collegiately at West Virginia University, which for years has battled Maddalena’s alma mater Alaska Fairbanks for national team titles.
“We competed together a lot and have grown up in the sport. When Thrasher was preparing for the 2016 Olympics I was tagging along with her and training with her, and it was really awesome to see how she prepared mentally,” Maddalena says. “She’s very good with routines and I guess you can say she has rituals in her preparation before she competes. That’s definitely something that I’ve learned from her.” CC