In Sight with Pattie Dench

Pattie’s Olympic bronze a golden opportunity missed

By Greg Campbell

Pattie Dench has the honour of winning Australia’s first Olympic Games medal in Shooting when claiming the bronze medal in Sports Pistol at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

But 36 years later, she has no doubt it should have been a gold medal.

A late starter in the sport, Dench only took up Shooting by chance in 1974 when aged 42.

Then a divorced mother of two adult sets of twins, Dench attended Campbelltown Liverpool Pistol Club where a male friend would shoot while she would patiently wait and read a book.

“I sat there for months until they said, ‘come and have a shot Pattie’,” she recalled.

Despite her initial uncertainty, Dench quickly discovered she was a natural Pistol athlete. Six months later, she was a Master Grade shooter and attended the 1975 National Pistol titles in Tasmania where she finished a credible 10th.

A year later, she was placed second in Sports Pistol at the National Pistol titles in Adelaide and in 1978 she was chosen on the Australian team for her first World Championship in Korea.

“I was shooting Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesday nights. I just loved it,” she said.

Dench returned to Korea in 1979 with the Australian team and, in the same year, she came second in the world in Air Pistol in Suhl, East Germany, 10 years before the Berlin Wall was demolished.

Dench’s Olympic dream commenced in 1980 when news broke that events, exclusively for women, would be included in the competition schedule for the first time.

“It was only when (coach) John Davidson said to me in 1980, ‘(do) you know ladies are going to be shooting at the 1984 Olympics.’ So, I went out and bought myself a new gun because I’d only been using second-hand guns,” said Dench.

She purchased a new Hammerli 208 .22 pistoI and shot a duelling score of 299 out of 300 with her first use of the gun at Blacktown Pistol Club.

Over the next four years, Dench adopted a single-minded approach to her sport. She was so focused that she often could not remember her drive to the pistol range because she was so intensely thinking of what she was going to do at the range.

Dench was proud of her fitness. She had gained natural arm strength from lifting and holding her twins, Christopher and Stuart, and, Mark and Louise, as babies. She walked 15 kilometres a week, attended her local gym and regularly visited her chiropractor to ensure her right elbow was in peak condition.

“I’ve still got my muscles,” boasted the 88-year old as she flexed her biceps.

In the lead-up to the Los Angeles Olympics, the Australian team entered a training camp at an Army Base in Fort Worth, Texas.

There, she bumped into former world Air Pistol champion, Sally Carroll, who was a US Army Major. While she did not compete at the Olympics, Carroll advised Dench there would be two relays of Pistol shooters at the Olympics, with the first commencing at 9am and the second at 11am.

When she arrived in the Village, Dench was handed a piece of paper stating she would be in the second relay – an 11am start so she thought.

But instead of the second relay commencing at 11.00am, it was scheduled to begin at 10.30am, and Dench was unaware of the new time.

With the range located an hour from the Athletes Village, Dench set her pre-event preparation down to the minute.

She had planned to arrive at the range early, get dressed into her competition uniform and spend 30 minutes listening to the noise of the range and to settle before entering the pistol hall.

“I never saw anyone and no-one came looking for me. So, I walked from the (athletes) tent to the range, and these ranges are big. I came in the side door and everybody’s there, everybody’s on the line and I’m the last one to walk in,” she said.

“How do you think I felt? It absolutely floored me. Then they said, ‘shooters to the line’. I had to re-adjust. I never had enough time to settle,” she added.

Dench lost 11 points in her first 15 shots in precision before dropping only four shots in her next 15 shots to eventually register 285 from 300 points.

Despite her fightback, Dench was bitterly disappointed.

“I was shooting 290 plus in precision. I was shooting the most beautiful groups. I was 63 kgs and fighting fit,” she said.

Then in duelling, Dench compiled 298 from 300 points, including two perfect rounds of 100 points, for a combined score of 583 along with 20-year old Liu Haiying from China, and a mere two points behind Canada’s Linda Thorn and USA’s Ruby Fox, who shot-off for the gold medal.

Dench then outscored Haiying in a shoot-off to claim the bronze medal.

Was it a gold medal that got away?

Dench said; “I can assure you it was.”

Her view was vindicated on her return home when she travelled to compete in Shellharbour, in the NSW southern Illawarra region, shooting scores of 294 and 297 for a total of 591 – 16 points better than Thorn’s Olympic gold medal winning score.

The Los Angeles Olympics were tarnished by the Soviet-led boycott of 14 Eastern Bloc nations from the Games.

However, Dench received the opportunity to test herself against all the world’s best Sports Pistol athletes in Munich in 1985 where she captured the silver medal behind Russia.

“I really enjoyed coming second to Russia,” said Dench.

Despite her fine form and Olympic bronze medal, Dench didn’t seek Australian Olympic team selection for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

“I had no life. No life at all. All I did was shoot,” said Dench.

“I never went to the movies and I had no social life. After that, my life changed, and I went back to golf, played off a 22 handicap and won the C grade championship,” she added.

While her golf clubs are nowadays unused, Dench turned her competitive nature to Ballroom dancing, playing Bridge and producing embroidery works which has seen her named Best Exhibitor at the Camden Show. Next on her agenda is Christmas card making.

Dench has 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, “with another on the way”, and the Pistol range at the Sydney International Shooting Centre, the venue for the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is named in her honour.

She has a piece of simple advice for the Tokyo Olympic Shooting team.

“You’ve got to have dreams. You’ve got to believe in yourself that you can do it,” she said.

Shooting Australia