Other Pointers

Aiming Artists: Michael Johnson

Sonja Benčina

Jun 2, 2023

One of the greatest pleasures of competing is meeting amazing athletes. Although we may be rivals on the firing line, we enjoy talking and learning from one another behind the scenes. In a series of interviews, we aim to share a few insights that the big names of shooting have to offer.

This time we spoke to one of the great names in world shooting para sport, rifle shooter Michael Johnson from New Zealand. We did the interview in Changwon, Korea, where Mike came in 15th, 16th and 9th in his three shooting events at the WSPS World Cup. For this trip, he asked Sonja to be his loader! Read on and find out what this means.

Can you tell me how you got into shooting?

So, a little bit of history about me. I currently use a wheelchair to get around because in 1996 I had a motor vehicle accident and broke my neck at C6-T1 vertebra. When I was at the spinal unit, I saw people who did archery. After getting out of the spinal unit, I started doing a degree in information technology but I also wanted to take up a hobby, so I thought I would take up archery. When I went along to archery, the man who looked after it took one look at me and he said to me: “I think there’s something wrong with your back.” I was thinking, “I don’t think he’s too interested to help me.” But anyway, I stayed and I watched. People were shooting the arrows, and when they missed the targets at the end of every round, they would stop, blow the whistle, and go hunting for their arrows. The people who missed the targets would pull out metal detectors because they had to hunt around in the grass, looking for the arrows. And I looked at my dad who came along with me and he looked at me and we were like: “Hmm?” So I left feeling a little bit like despondent, you know, a bit bummed out.

But this one day I was back at the spinal unit and they’ve got a sport and recreational place where they gave me a brochure about target shooting at this club that was not very far from my house. And I went along. They were super friendly and helpful and they let me have a shoot straight away. I thought that this is crazy. They give out guns to people with disabilities? This is awesome!

How did you do on your first shoot?

I hit the target, I can’t remember, but it was OK. I was just shooting off a wobbly platform.

Was that the first time you held a rifle?

No. When I was a kid, I had an air rifle. I shot at the neighbours sheets and the police came and that rifle got confiscated. But I hid another rifle under the bed and I was playing air rifle with my nephew. He’s two years younger than me and I think we might have been around 10 and 12. I accidentally shot him! I mean, I was aiming and I shot him through a knot in the wood in the neck, but he was fine.

Can you tell us a bit about WSPS shooters?

So, yeah, WSPS, World Shooting Para Sport. It’s definitely a mouthful! There are different categories: the athletes in category SH1 have good upper body strength and good hand function and they can hold the rifles themselves. The SH2 athletes, which is my classification, use a stand or a spring that the rifle rests on. If you’re an SH2, you have a loader and that person assists you with your equipment and your rifle and loads your rifle, so you become a pair in the competition. And then there’s another category which, I when I first heard about it, I thought “Oh my God”, and that’s the SH3 – the visually impaired shooters. I was thinking: “What? They give guns to blind people and disabled people? This is so cool!”

What equipment do the visually impaired shooters use?

They use a special system that turns light signal into a sound signal, and they wear these headphones on their head. As they aim closer and closer to the target, the tone of the sound gets higher and higher. Once they reach the middle, they pull the trigger and hit the target. 

Within these categories, you have different events.

In the World Shooting Para Sport, WSPS, there are a number of different events depending on your classification and the events that you can shoot. They have different codes from R1 (R stands for rifle) through to R11; and P (for pistol) from P1 to P5. Let’s take for example R4 which is air rifle standing and one of the events that I shoot. This event comes closest to able bodied shooting and it was the first event that I started shooting because all the able-bodied shooters shot standing and I wanted to shoot with them. [Standing means that your rifle is placed on the spring but your arms must not be supported; in the prone event, your elbows can be supported by a table mounted on your wheelchair or similar setup.] So that’s how I shoot and the current world record in that particular category, which is mixed, so both men and women shoot together, is 637.4.

In WSPS shooting, we shoot air rifle and air pistol, but also small bore and shotgun. Small bore rifle shooting is 50 metres outdoors, you use .22 calibre bullets. As you shoot, you need to navigate what the wind and the outdoor conditions are doing  the wind can actually push your bullets off course. You might be aiming at the centre of the target, but say for example the wind is blowing from the left to the right, it will push your bullet in that direction. Depending on whether it’s sunny or dry, that will also affect where you’re aiming and where your bullet hits the target. So you might be aiming at the middle of the target, but when the sun comes out, it gets really bright. There’s a little bit of a mirage, which is a shimmering off the ground from moisture. And then your bullet will hit the top of the target. There’s all sorts of different things and I really like shooting outdoors because of those variables, it just makes it that a little bit more challenging and a little bit more fun.

You mentioned that SH2 shooters can have a loader. What is their function? Can they assist you with for example reading the wind?

Yes, the SH2 shooters can have a loader, but loaders are not allowed to coach the shooter in any way, so the shooter must make all the decisions and convey that information to the loader and then the loader can make any adjustments for the shooter. But apart from the loader loading the rifle, they will set their equipment up, they’ll make sure that the athlete’s shooting suits or jackets are on and done up, if they can’t do them up themselves, they will lug their gear around and set up their rifle. So it’s quite involved and finding a good combination between shooter and loader is extremely critical because each person can affect the other person and you want to be harmonious. This will give you best results.

Finding a good combination between shooter and loader is extremely critical because each person can affect the other person and you want to be harmonious.

Have you had many loaders in your long career?

I have been doing target shooting for 21 years now. That’s a long time and I have had lots and lots of loaders. I have different people for when I do international travel, compared to different people that I have just for at home training or at my local club training. People are always going through different stages in their lives and sometimes they’re keen to help for a little while but then they move on and do other things. One of the challenges of being a disabled athlete and shooter is looking for support staff that can give me a hand.

Shooter Michael Johnson at WSPS World Cup in Changwon, Korea, May 2023, on the shooting line next to Ukranian Vasyl Kovalchuk.

But you’re not just a shooter. You have many shooting roles.

Yeah. I have many different hats. I am an athlete and coach and also the programme lead for my sport. I’m also on the Paralympics New Zealand Athletes’ Council and I used to be the athlete representative for the World Shooting Para Sport for about four years. So yeah, I just like to give back. I can see that there’s so many benefits of coaching and supporting other people that can actually help you if you give back.

What are your tips or advice for young disabled people who wish to take up a sport and are interested in shooting?

Similar to my advice in life in general, I think. For example, if you’re looking for a career, find something that you really enjoy doing. Shooting for me is not only a hobby, but also my job. I enjoy doing what I do and it’s turned into something that I can make a living with, travel the world, and meet lots of new people and new friends. It’s finding your passion and not being afraid to give a whole lot of things a go. Whether you fail or you succeed, I think it’s just trying, that’s the main thing.

And that goes for shooting as well?

Yeah, absolutely. So shooting does have its own challenges. Not only is it physically challenging, it’s mentally challenging as well. I’ve been shooting a long time, but I’m always continuously trying to improve, looking for new and better ways of doing things. And I think that sort of stuff makes the sport fresh for me, because if you always stay in one place, you can get stagnant and you can get bored. So always look to challenge yourself.

Do you have an SOS exit for the mental challenges you encounter on the line?

Yeah, so recently I’ve been using a breathing technique where I breathe quite rapidly in through the nose, take one deep breath through the nose and then slowly breathe out of my mouth. And I repeat that, say two or three times, and that really helps to lower my heart rate.

And there’s another technique I’ll use. I will say: What are three things that I can hear? What are three things that I can see, and what are three things that I can feel. That helps ground me and stay focused.

And last but not least, writing notes, yes or no?

Definitely yes! And Shooting Notes – what an amazing resource, fantastic! Definitely yes, because at moments when you might be testing ammunition or changing your front sights, you want to write down the key points because you can easily forget them just the next day. So if you’ve got Shooting Notes, make sure you keep it in your bag or in your shooting kit or with your rifle or your pistol or whatever you’re doing so that it’s nice and handy!

A portrait of New Zealand shooter Michael Johnson wearing a black hat

Michael Johnson (1973, New Zealand) is a World Shooting Para Sport legend with 5 consecutive Paralympic Games under his belt. Only two years after he started competing, he shot a perfect 600 out of 600 at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, equalled the world record in the final, and went home with gold. He has two bronze medals in the same event, air rifle standing, from the 2008 Beijing and the 2012 London Paralympic Games

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