by Greg Campbell
Dane Sampson was born to shoot rifle.
If fact, he was on the range before he was born as his mother Robyn, herself an Australian representative, was pregnant with Dane in 1986 when she would compete on the line at the Commercial club in Brisbane.
His dad, Rodney, was also a long-time rifle shooter and later held many administrative roles with Target Rifle Australia (TRA) including President between 2014-17.
His aunt, Anne Budgen, was also an Australian representative and she later became an assistant coach to several Australian Paralympic teams, including the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
With such a rich pedigree, Sampson had established the burning ambition to win Olympic selection when he was aged 10. Fourteen years later, that goal was realised when he attended the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Next year, Sampson will line-up for his third Olympic Games where he will contest the individual 10m Air Rifle and 50m 3 Positions events, plus the Mixed Team 10m Air Rifle which will make its Games debut.
Sampson’s love for rifle shooting began when growing up on 70 acres in Coominya, 80km west of Brisbane and near the Wivenhoe Dam.
Once he gained his firearms licence, he would after school load up a wheelbarrow with his .22 calibre rifle, a spotting scope, ammunition, target sheets and a car battery to operate the target changing machine and wander down to the home-made rifle range established by his dad.
“It’s where I learned to shoot. I’d shoot until the sun went down,” recalled Sampson.
His weekends would be consumed with competitions at the Commercial club or attending prize shoots in regional Queensland towns such as Gympie and Maryborough.
He was introduced to Air Rifle when aged 16 and quickly made his way up the ranks to win Australian team selection for a World Cup competition in Munich in 2011 before chosen to attend the London Olympics in 2012.
The thrill of Olympic selection was later overtaken by the enormity of the Games and the despondency of under-performance.
“I think I had different expectations,” he reflected. “I really was not that experienced. I’d only been doing proper international competitions for one year before then and it really wasn’t enough time to understand how I would react (to competing at an Olympics).
“Every time a certain expectation was not met is was like a hard blow and it felt like it was one after another,” he said.
“At the Games it hit me pretty hard. I was crushed pretty bad because I did not do well. I then lost that fire, that real drive I had leading into the Games.”
Post the London Games was a pivotal moment for Sampson. He admits he was in limbo.
He said; “I really didn’t know what to do, or where to go, or what I was doing in the sport.”
Sampson was then offered the opportunity to move to Adelaide and be part of a high performance rifle hub established by National Rifle Coach, Petr Kurka, and it proved to be a career turning point.
In 2014, Sampson won Australian team selection for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games where he qualified for all three finals in 10m Air Rifle, 50m 3 Positions, and 50m Prone. While reaching the finals was a positive step, he was underwhelmed by his finals performances.
Two years later, Sampson won selection for his second Olympics at the 2016 Rio Games and it proved to be the catalyst which sparked his drive to win selection for the Tokyo Olympics.
“The best feeling was finishing that last shot in 3P and straight away having this feeling I know what I need to do now for Tokyo. I was probably more motivated than before the competition,” he said.
“To have the feeling of being really excited for the next Olympic Games in four years was a great feeling to have straight away.”
Energised and with a clear focus on his future pathway, Sampson then enjoyed the thrill of a home Games at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
In fact, it was more than a home Games for Sampson. He was competing in his home state and at his home range at Belmont, just outside Brisbane. His dad Rodney was the Chief Range Officer, as he was at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and his mum, Robyn was Results Timing and Scoring Officer.
“That was really cool because I’m competing there and the voice telling us when we could start and stop was my dad,” he said.
In the crowd were mates from Lowood State High School and friends from the TRA community and Sampson responded with a gold medal winning performance in the 10m Air Rifle.
“Having all these people there and being able to share this successful moment was quite special,” he said.
The final was not without drama. He was within 0.3 points off being the second athlete eliminated in the final and was later staring down the barrel to being the fifth athlete to be eliminated and missing out on a medal.
“I can remember at one point where I was almost out and I said to myself you have to shoot a 10.8 or a 10.9 or something here if you are to stay in the competition, and that’s what I did,” he recalled.
He shot a 10.9 to jump into second place and forced his Australian team-mate Alex Hoberg into a shoot-off with India’s Ravi Kumar for a place in the final three shooters which Kumar claimed.
As Sampson and Abdullah Hel Baki of Bangladesh entered the final shot to determine the gold medal winner, Sampson held an important 0.6 point lead but opened the door to his rival when firing a score of 9.3.
Needing to shoot a score of 10.0 or better to win, the Bangladeshi could only manage 9.7 and Sampson celebrated with a fist pump.
“My last shot was not the best, but it was enough. There was a lot of relief in there and I just let it out,” he said.
Buoyed by his gold medal success, Sampson then headed to Changwon in Korea for the World Championship where he reached the 3 Positions final shooting a personal best qualifying score of 1177.
“I shot a PB by a long way. It was ticking off a lifetime goal. It was incredibly rewarding,” he said.
Then, not to be outdone, he finished fourth in 10m Air Rifle at the 2019 World Cup competition in Rio and managed to secure an Olympic Games quota place.
“To get that (quota) on the open market like that was very special. It was another goal to tick-off. Petr and I had this goal for years. It’s the best when you can start ticking that off,” he said.
Last year, Sampson peeled off further PB’s in 10m Air Rifle and 50m 3 Positions and averaged consistently high scores throughout this year’s four Olympic nomination trials.
Now, with the Tokyo Olympics postponed until July next year, Sampson is determined to raise his average scores even higher.
“In that top 10-15 people in the world, anyone can win on the day. There are so many variables and so much can happen. I’m one of those people in the top group that can win on the day. It’s an incredibly enjoyable place to be,” he said.
After taking a break after the nomination trials, Sampson is revived and back in training in Adelaide along with other South Australian-based rifle athletes including fellow Tokyo Olympic team-mates Jack Rossiter, Katarina Kowplos and Hoberg.
Sampson says the group is motivating each other to reach new performance heights.
“It’s really important to have that competition at home, the friendly rivalry and being able to push each other and work off each other and always increasing the level,” he said.
“We have this opportunity now that we can train for the Games without any distraction, without any interference of having to do selections again, and don’t have to compromise on any training,” he added.
Sampson is utilising the full range of athlete services provided by the South Australian Sports Institute (SASI), while Kurka continues to work on his skills, particularly the base skills of balance, hold and triggering.
“If I get those better, then I will be a much stronger athlete. If you do those well, then you are going to have a good competition,” he says.