In Sight with James Willett

Willett’s home range pulls trigger on COVID-19 lockdown

Social restrictions and lockdowns have become the new norm. For our Olympic shooting athletes, it is a period of immense frustration. They have earned their ticket to the Tokyo Olympic Games, but they must now wait another 16 months before they can walk into the Athletes Village. For most, they can’t even fire a shot instead relying on practice dry firing or using SCATT laser machines while holed up at home.

But for Olympic trap shooter James Willett, life is normal. Social distancing? Not necessary when you have your own $250,000 Olympic-standard fully licenced trap range on the family farm in Mulwala 100km west of Albury, just inside the NSW border. Willett can simply walk out the back door, load his shotgun, call ‘pull’ and blaze away as the clay targets spin across the skyline.

Willett and his dad, Arthur, commenced building the 20m long trap range last November to assist him prepare for the Tokyo Olympics. Inside the 2m high concrete bunker are 15 clay target machines which fire off targets in random directions. The project was completed in March. Then COVID-19 took over the world. The trap range was shiny, new and ready for use. Talk about good timing.

While his Olympic rivals are unable to fire off a shot, Willett can practice as if the world was functioning normally. It will give him a decisive advantage when social restrictions are eventually  lifted, and competitions recommence.

“I’m very lucky to have the range on the farm and being able to shoot at the moment. I never thought it would have paid off for this reason,” said Willett.

The trap range became necessary for Willett as he pursues his dream of an Olympic gold medal. Melbourne is a three hour drive away. Sydney is six and a half. Build your own on the farm? A 20 second walk.

Most of the building work was done by Willett and his dad. That’s how things get done in the country.

“Growing up on a farm, you become familiar with using machinery, using your hands and earning responsibility. At 12 years of age, I was driving a header on my own after coming home from school to help dad out,” he explained.

Arthur also introduced him to shooting at a young age and he gained his firearm licence when he was 12. “We had a problem with foxes. Baits are dangerous to the dogs, so we’d go out to shoot the foxes,” he said.

Willett, under that watchful eye of Arthur, proved to be a good shot. Shooting was a school sport at Corowa High and zone, state and national schoolboy honours quickly followed. Weekends were occupied travelling and competing at various Down The Line competitions across NSW and Victoria where he would face off against the stars of the shooting circuit and the grizzly, gnarly old timers. Lessons were quickly learned, and valuable experience was gained.

In 2013, when aged 18, he was shooting against 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games gold medallist, Russell Mark. Two years later, Willett was named in the Australian team for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Russell Mark the competitor later became Russell Mark the coach.

Willett arrived in Rio as the world’s top ranked double trap athlete after winning the World Cup final in Rome months earlier, but the Olympics didn’t go quite to plan.

A medal, possibly gold, was in his sights after he and Andreas Low of Germany both set an Olympic qualifying record hitting 140 from a possible 150 targets. With the top six athletes progressing to the semi-finals, Low was the first athlete eliminated and then Willett lost a three-man shoot-off for the bronze medal against Steven Scott and Tim Kneale, both from Great Britain.

While disappointed, Willett put it down as part of the steep learning curve and vowed to be back. He also knew time was on his side. The gold medal winner, Kuwaiti Fehaid Aldeehani, who was competing as an independent Olympic athlete after Kuwait was banned from the Games, was 49 years of age. Willett was only 20.

After Rio, double trap was removed from the Tokyo shooting competition schedule and Willett was forced to change to trap. While he was amid the change-over, Willett competed at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games finishing sixth.

2019 proved to be another great year for Willett. At the World Cup meet in Acapulco, Willett equalled the world record when shooting a perfect qualifying score of 125 from 125 targets. Two-time Australian Olympic gold medallist, Michael Diamond, is the only other Australian shooter to have completed the perfect score in 2012.

“It was very satisfying. It’s not something I thought I could achieve straight away. It came quicker than I thought. Getting through that last shot was a great moment and I will never forget that,” said Willett.

In Italy last year, Willett and Victoria’s Laetisha Scanlan won the Mixed Pairs gold medal in the World Championship with Australian team-mates, Tokyo Olympians Tom Grice and Penny Smith, earning the bronze medal.

In Tokyo next year, Willett will again enter the trap competition as one of the medal favourites, but this time there will be another shot at a medal with the introduction of the Mixed Trap Pairs.

“Going into the Olympics with two medal opportunities is different to what I had in Rio,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to win the Olympic Games.”

While Tokyo will be his second Olympic Games, Willett has no intention of it being his last.

“I want to be involved in the sport for a long period of time. It’s something that I enjoy. I can see myself staying in the sport for many (Olympic) cycles and to make as many teams as I can,” he said

“There is no real barrier to how long you can shoot for as long as you can remain competitive. The guy that won in Rio was almost 50.”

That means his Mulwala “Field of Dreams’ trap range is there for the long term.

– Greg Campbell

James Willett on Instagram

Shooting Australia