Let’s go back to 2008. I was the ripe age of 10 years old. My brother shot sporting clays competitively and each summer we would travel to Sparta, Illinois for the National Championship. 

At this point in time, sporting clays hadn’t quite reached the popularity that it has today. It was a fairly intimate sport. My brother’s teammates and their families quickly became my family’s social group. Traveling here and there for shoots… each weekend, a new small town with a sporting clays range, a hole in the wall restaurant, and endless opportunities for pranks/funny stories/and memories with people we’re still friends with, to this day. So when the National Championship rolled around, caravanning all 12 hours from South Carolina to Illinois sounded right up our alley. 

One year, my dad had the great idea for us to make a half-way pit-stop at this “quaint” little fishing lodge near Kentucky Lake. Word spread throughout the team, and one-by-one each family said “count me in”. So imagine the surprise when all 10 or so families rolled up at this place to find it wasn’t quite what they internet portrayed it to be. Putting it nicely, this place looked like it boarded up its doors and windows in the ‘60s and opened it up for our stay. 

Unable to get out of our reservation, we pushed through a one night’s stay. Most notably, the duck taped pool slide survived our visit, us Gen Z kids learned to play shuffleboard, and to our parents’ dismay the one restaurant close-by indeed does not serve cold beer to tired, frazzled travelers… it’s a dry county!  

That particular pit-stop won my dad a “Travel Agent of the Year” award and a lifetime worth being picked on. But what was a rather tragic stay at a run-down fishing lodge, has evolved into one of our all-time favorite stories. 

Our eventful housing situations didn’t end with our half-way pit-stop, but continued on into our stay in Illinois. Because why on earth would you stay in a hotel when you could rent a block of campers at the World Shooting Complex? So there we were, highly unexperienced campers, thrown into a world of grey water, black water, and “whatever you do don’t leave the awning down”. 

But you couldn’t have convinced us kids that it wasn’t the best week of our lives. Imagine golf cart races, swimming in the campground pond, and nightly state-wide tailgate style cookouts after a day’s worth of shooting. South Carolina knew how to do it up right. 

As the week came to an end, the competition would wrap up with a closing ceremony. Each state would parade in, awards would be given, and there would always be some form of entertainment… usually in the form of trick shooters. 

This particular year, two members of the Olympic Shotgun Team came with a presentation. Long shots, trick shots, over the head shots, behind the back shots… it was truly impressive. Their performance continued on, until they turned to the crowd and asked for volunteers. 

At this point in time, there weren’t a whole lot of ladies in the sport. As one of the few girls who traveled with my brother’s team, I became sort of the “team sister”. While I didn’t compete, I was there supporting!

So as the trick shooters asked for volunteers, all eyes and fingers in our section of the bleachers pointed at me. There I was, 10 years old, wide eyed and in the spot light. The female trick shooter chose me, and in one swift moment I was on my way down the bleachers, in front of the crowd. There I stood, with two other “volunteers” wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. 

Imagine the sheer panic that rushed through my body when an Olympic shooter handed me her shotgun. Silly me, one of the very few people there who DIDN’T shoot competitively… I was merely a spectator, cheerleader, team sister. And there I was in front of a huge crowd of talented shooters, not even a shooter myself. With what little bit of courage left in my body I frantically whispered to the Olympic shooter, “I DON’T SHOOT. MY BROTHER DOES. I’M JUST HERE TO WATCH HIM.” She laughed and said, “It’s okay, you’ll be fine”. 

Whoah there sis… I’m glad she had some confidence in me because I had none. All I could think of was the humiliation I was going to bring upon my brother and his teammates if I missed the target. They might just leave me in Illinois, demoted as the team sister.

To my sweet relief, the presenters revealed what we were shooting at… stationary balloons! My confidence began to resurface as I recalled the many days my grandfather and I shot at tin cans on the fencepost with a BB gun. A moving clay target, forget it… but I felt pretty certain I could hit something sitting still. 

My turn came, it was now or never. I stepped up to the box, aimed, and fired away. A puff of red smoke blew up out of the balloon as it burst. Red, then white, then blue… as the other volunteers took their shot. 

I returned to the bleachers, feeling as though I might as well have won an Olympic medal myself. 

What we know now, that we didn’t know then, is that those nights spent in run down motels, long car rides through corn fields in the middle-of-no-where Illinois, and times we were put on the spot in front of an entire national championship crowd are the memories and traditions that make up a lifetime. You see those moments spent outdoors, spent with family are moments you’ll never regret.