Petr Kurka’s life has been dedicated to peering through Rifle sights and aiming at small concentric target circles off in the distance.
As the countdown to the Tokyo Olympic Games continues, Kurka is looking down the barrel of attending a remarkable ninth Olympic Games – a tally that could easily have been 10 Olympics if it were not for the boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games by Eastern Bloc countries.
The decorated Kurka attended the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games as a Rifle athlete for his native Czech Republic before coaching its Rifle team at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Games.
And after moving to Australia in 2009, Tokyo will be his third Olympics with his adopted country after he accepted an offer as Shooting Australia’s National Rifle Coach following the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Kurka was born into Rifle Shooting. Both his parents were Rifle shooters with his dad, Libor, representing the former Czechoslovakia at a European and World Championships level.
Petr commenced competitive Rifle shooting when aged 15 and two years later, in 1977, he was named in the junior Czechoslovakian national team. He graduated to the senior national team and won selection for the 1983 European Championships where he won the silver medal in the men’s 50m Rifle Prone event.
While he won his first major medal in men’s 50m Rifle Prone, his pet event was the men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions where competitors shoot while laying prone, standing, and kneeling.
“I like the challenging stuff,” said Kurka. “Prone is not easy as it is very, very precise but it’s just one position. 3P is three positions and three different styles of competing and is a long event. It’s the toughest event.”
For most athletes, after they are named in the National Team, it takes around eight years to become highly proficient in 50m Rifle 3 Positions but Kurka had some important advantages – his dad, his time in military service followed by a career as a policeman.
“My father was a pretty good guide. He was a very experienced prone shooter, and he did 3P and Air Rifle as well, along with his job as a carpenter. He finished fourth in the World Championships,” said Kurka.
“My two years in military service was not as tough as it was for others. I had the opportunity to train several times a week and I was also lucky to be able to train with the best and most experienced shooters and coaches of the then Czechoslovakian national team.”
During his 20 years as a member of Police, he said he was rarely on street duties and was able to practice regularly.
Kurka had a major performance breakthrough in 1985 when he broke the 20-year Czech men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions national record becoming the first athlete to break 1170 points.
He extended his personal best score to 1177 points during a competition in the former Yugoslavia in the months prior to the 1986 World Championships in Suhl, then part of East Germany.
“That was a big jump in a relatively short period and that opened the door to everything. From that moment on, I started to think differently. I understood that it is possible to achieve the maximum result for any discipline. Even standing.” recalled Kurka.
With his form reaching new heights, Kurka marched on to clinch the World Championship title by a very slim margin over Great Britain’s Malcolm Cooper, who was the dominant Rifle competitor at the time.
Kurka’s sights were set on the 1988 Seoul Olympics and he was the gold medal favourite after setting a new world record of 1183 points at the Olympic Test event in 1987 and a new final world record of 599 points plus 105.9 points in 50m Prone at the World Cup in Switzerland.
However, Kurka soon experienced the harsh pitfalls of elite sport when placed 32nd in Seoul.
“I was young, and I didn’t manage it. I focused all my efforts on training, because at the time I thought it was the only and best thing for me to do to perform at my best. Everything was just wrong. I shot 1160 and finished 32nd, so I was crying after that, even though I finished 11th in the Air Rifle, which I considered a success” he said.
More World Cup gold medals were won in men’s 50m and men’s 300m events and men’s 10m Air Rifle in the years after Seoul, and he won selection for a second Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 finishing 11th in both the men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions and men’s 10m Air Rifle.
Then in 1994, Kurka enjoyed an outstanding World Championship in Milan capturing six individual and team medals including a second 50m Rifle 3 Positions world title.
“This was a different title. I was able to perfectly prepare myself technically and mentally, and at the same time I was able to benefit from the lessons of the past years,” said Kurka.
Kurka comfortably won selection for his third Olympics, in Atlanta in 1996, but an Olympic medal eluded him again when finishing 11th in the men’s 10m Air Rifle.
“Obviously, I expected a little bit more from the three Olympics. I definitely expected some final placements than just three 11th placings, a 13th and a 32nd. But I won two World Championships which was excellent satisfaction,” he said.
“It’s not just about the medals. If you do a good job, you feel like all the hard work and all the hours have been paid back to you. You know this in your heart and in your head,” he added.
Kurka had aspirations to compete at Sydney 2000 but he knew deep down that his best performances were behind him.
“In the years before the 1998 World Cup in Barcelona I could not keep my performance at the level at which I wanted to be. I had some success, but I was not consistent. I was not shooting well, and more people were shooting higher scores and I got stuck a little bit. And I think I was a little bit tired after shooting at an elite level for 20 years,” he said.
“After the World Championships in Barcelona, the manager of the Federation said they will change the coach of the national team after the Championships. He said, ‘do you want the position’? And I said, ‘when do I have to decide?’. He said, ‘today’,” Kurka said with a smile.
“I went back to the hotel and I went for a walk and I spoke with my parents and with my wife over the phone. My goal was still to go to Sydney in 2000. Then I said I am tired, and I am not sure how I will do that. And I said I will take the position because I would like to stay with Shooting, and I felt ready to share my experience as a coach and to help other team-mates.” he added.
Kurka led the team at the Sydney Olympics and enjoyed his first taste of Australia when the Czech Republic team contested the Oceania Championships and an Olympic training camp in Sydney in 1999, and he liked what he experienced.
The 2004 Athens Olympics was particularly special for Kurka as his daughter Katerina won selection in the Czech Republic team and captured the first bronze medal of the Games when third in the women’s 10m Air Rifle.
Four years later, the father-daughter combination was united again at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games where Katerina won gold and set a new World and Olympic record in the women’s 10m Air Rifle and silver in the women’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions.
After the Beijing Games, the Czech Shooting Federation was keen for Kurka to remain as coach, but he wanted to move on.
“They offered me good conditions to stay, and I said no guys, it’s not about the money, it’s about my life,” said Kurka.
“I was looking to go somewhere else and find a challenge. It wasn’t about running from my country because I love my country. But it was about the job and to find something and somewhere else.”
Kurka thoroughly enjoyed Australia and the Sydney Olympics, and he knew it was the country where he and his wife Sarka should settle.
“That was the country. It was really nice, and the people were nice,” he said. “I started looking for jobs anywhere, and I got a couple of offers and then the Australian Shooting Federation came as well.”
By this stage both daughters Katerina and Alena were now adults and married and Kurka and Sarka arrived in Adelaide in 2009 and he has now been Australia’s National Rifle coach for 12 years.
“Without my wife, I would definitely would not have left to live so far from home to work for such a long time. She has been my biggest and most important supporter. I am very glad that she agreed to such a difficult move. We’re both happy down here,” said Kurka.
Kurka is looking forward to his ninth Olympic Games saying, “Every single Games are different. Every single Games gives you something else. They can’t take anything from you, but they can give you something that you can use in your life.”
Apart from 34-year-old Dane Sampson, who will attend his third Olympics in Tokyo, Kurka will lead a very young five-member Australian Olympic Rifle team comprising Alex Hoberg (aged 19), Katarina Kowplos (19), Elise Collier (22) and Jack Rossiter (23).
To overcome the lack of international competition because of travel restrictions as a result of COVID-19, Kurka has successfully arranged several international online Rifle competitions with competitors from Asia and has been pleased with his team’s progress.
“I have a pretty young group and Paris 2024 should be our stronger event,” he said.
“They can do the scores to compete for a medal in Tokyo and our goal is to reach one or two finals. It doesn’t matter if you are first or eighth in qualifying for the final. You are starting from zero, so your chances are open,” he added.
And with eight Olympic Games under his belt, Kurka has the advantage of knowing all about the machinations of Olympic competition and what is possible.