As the world's best compete in London, a former Olympian among us recalls his own journey

August 4, 2012 4:52:36 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]




[email protected] 


Plenty of Golden Triangle porches sport decorative flags that proclaim collegiate allegiances, whether they be Bulldog maroon and white, Rebel red and blue or any other team's colors. But, from one porch in a quiet, well-manicured West Point neighborhood, don't be surprised to see the Olympic rings flying proudly, at least through the Aug. 12 closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Until then, Tony Rosetti's team is Team USA. 


More than 4,500 miles from Britain's Olympic Park, Rosetti is following results and catching all the TV coverage he can. He's certainly not the only Mississippian tuned in to the spectacle, but he's one of the elite few who know what it is to be there. To train hard, to be selected, to walk in the opening ceremonies, to represent your country. 


Rosetti was a member of the two-man United States Skeet Shooting Team at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. And every Olympics since stirs the past. 


"It brings back thousands of memories," said Rosetti, at ease in his living room, surrounded by the happy chaos of daughters packing for college. "I'm a huge U.S. supporter, I'm always pullin' for them." 




Sharp shooting 


Rosetti's road to the Olympics had an innocuous-enough beginning in his hometown of Biloxi, when he was just a boy. 


"I'd been shooting since I was about 11 or 12, and one day my dad said to me, 'You know, son, you should go down to the gun club and shoot some skeet.' Well, my first question was, 'What's skeet?'" laughed the University of Mississippi alumnus. 


At the club, with a borrowed gun, the young Rosetti hit 18 out of 25 targets in the first round of skeet he attempted. (One round consists of 25 clay discs, or "pigeons," automatically flung into the air from fixed stations at high speed and shot at from a variety of angles.) 


"I remember I was a little disappointed I didn't hit more, and everyone else was surprised I got so many," he grinned.  


The fire had been ignited: At age 14, Rosetti won the Junior Champion title at the 1960 Mississippi Skeet Championship. By 1965, he was part of a world record-breaking team (hitting 496 of 500 targets), winning the National Skeet Shooting Association's World Championship. 


Vying for the team 


When time came for college, Rosetti headed to Ole Miss, where his father had been a baseball standout and had briefly boxed. (His mom was a crack golfer, a Gulf Coast Ladies Champion.) For a while, the young marksman thought he might go into pharmacy, as his dad had done. But life had other plans. 


Taking a hiatus from college, Rosetti joined the Army and was deployed to Vietnam in 1966. Soon after his return, he made the Army Shooting Team and continued to distinguish himself. 


Proficient at all gauges -- 12, 20, 28, .410 -- Rosetti accumulated titles, records and honors. 


His resumé includes three U.S. International Skeet Championships, in 1969, 1971 and 1972; multiple National Skeet Shooting World Championship titles; the 1970 Grand Prix of Europe International Skeet Championship gold medal in Wiesbaden, Germany; and that same year, the gold medal at the Golden Bear International Skeet Championship in Bern, Switzerland, both times hitting 197 of 200 targets.  




Team USA 


There is perhaps no greater honor for an athlete than to represent his or her country on a world stage, which Rosetti did -- at the 1971 Pan American Games in Cali, Columbia, South America, and at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The U.S. team took the Pan-Am gold medal and Rosetti won the individual silver.  


He recalled the U.S. International Championship (and Olympic team selection) held in Phoenix, Ariz., before the 1972 Summer Olympics. 


"I was nervous as all get out, but -- I felt I could do it. My mindset has always been that if you do the best you can do, nobody can beat you," he said. 


In competition, Rosetti always told himself, "If I just break the next target -- not the next 200, just the next," he would be successful. 


After the last target of the competition, Rosetti had won the championship title yet again, and set a new national record, hitting 294 out of 300 targets during three days. 


"When I walked out to that last station, I knew I was on the Olympic team," he shared. "At that point a feeling came over me that I don't know how to explain." 




At the Games 


Hopes were high when the chartered plane carrying Rosetti and a host of other athletes lifted off from Washington Dulles International Airport for Munich and the Summer Games.  


"We were elated to be on that plane, and when we got there, the Olympic Village was beautiful," Rosetti recounted. "You're aware of everything, and you're meeting all these other athletes from everywhere." 


Marching in the opening ceremonies was a incomparable moment. 


"When you walk in that stadium, if nothing else, at that point you know you're at the Olympics. Man, it was like, 'Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore,'" he said with a smile. 


When it came to the skeet competition itself, Rosetti finished out of the medals, which weighed heavily -- until the horrific events of Sept. 5, 1972, pushed all other thoughts aside. The athletes and the world woke to learn that members of the Palestinian group Black September had broken into the Olympic Village and taken Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. 




A world watched  


Passing through a commons area in the Village on the way to breakfast that morning, Rosetti vaguely noticed that banks of television screens which normally ran coverage of different competitions going on were all showing the same image. But it wasn't until he returned that the facts sank in. 


"The Village became somber, to say the least," remarked the West Point man, whose own Olympic lodgings were not too far removed from the site of the crisis. For the first time in modern Olympic history, the Games were stopped. 


"We'd gone from a really, really exciting high, to a very, very depressing low in a matter of days. Not winning a gold medal was absolutely the last thing on my mind." 


Before it was over, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches lost their lives. Rosetti remembered the memorial service held in the Olympic stadium. 


"I think every athlete was there," he said. It was during that gathering that the athletes were finally told the Games would continue, a decision he felt was right. 




Back home 


School called Rosetti home before the entire Olympics had concluded. In fact, he had just enough time to pick up some clothes at home before driving to Oxford to register for the fall semester.  


He would go on to win collegiate, state and national championships in skeet shooting before graduating in 1974. 


In 1985 Rosetti was inducted into the Biloxi Sports Hall of Fame, along with his father. In 1995, he was inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Association Hall of Fame. 


Although an avid hunter, the former Olympian's skeet shooting these days is most often when someone asks for help. He feels he owes it to the sport that gave him so many fond memories of good people and places. 


"I was really lucky," he said. "I think everybody has the potential to do great things, if they have the opportunity to do that thing they do well to the best of their ability, whether it's being a great mechanic, an accountant or a candlemaker. 


"My dad took me down to that gun club and I found that one thing in this world I was really good at. And I did get the opportunity, at the Pan-Am Games, to stand on the podium and hear the national anthem played. It's a double-goosebump experience. I honestly wish everybody had the opportunity to have that feeling."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.