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Hometown Hopefuls: Ginny Thrasher, West Virginia

Ginny Thrasher

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 06: Virginia Thrasher of the United States celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 10m Air Rifle Women’s Finals on Day 1 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Shooting Centre on August 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

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Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

Rifle shooter Ginny Thrasher‘s first two Olympic cycles yielded the first gold medal of the Games and then a uniquely heartbreaking way to miss a team. She since endured a career-threatening injury and plans for the next two summers to be among her most memorable.

“The uncertainty and the challenge [of shooting] is one of the reasons I’m still doing it today,” said Thrasher, a 26-year-old who said she could compete for one more year or for 10 more years.

Thrasher first aspired to be an Olympian in figure skating. But around age 14, she had an epiphany on a hunting trip with her grandfather, father and two older brothers. While eating lunch, Thrasher’s dad noticed there was a deer right behind her.

“They didn’t think I was going to pull the trigger,” Thrasher said, according to a Washington Post profile before the Rio Games. “They didn’t think I could kill a deer.”

Thrasher, then a high school freshman in Springfield, Virginia, turned to competitive shooting. Five years later, she was the youngest U.S. shooter at the 2016 Rio Games, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at West Virginia University.

Though Thrasher was the first freshman to win NCAA titles in both air rifle and smallbore rifle, she came to her first Olympics with little international experience and a world ranking of 23.

She had to skip the Opening Ceremony because the women’s air rifle awarded the first medals of the entire Games. She was up at 5:30 a.m. and competing by 8:30. Just before 11, while some who had marched the night before were still in bed, she won the first gold medal of the Olympics.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” Thrasher said then, according to The Associated Press. “I knew it was a realistic expectation for me to get into the finals, and once you get into the finals, anything can happen.”

She had another event, the smallbore rifle, five days later.

“I think most people would have said my second event was my better event at the time,” she said. “But it’s really hard to compete when you’re pulled out of that zone of focusing on the process and, all of a sudden, everyone wants to talk to you.”

Thrasher missed the eight-woman final by one point after 60 shots in qualifying.

“It was kind of heartbreaking,” she said. “If I made the final, I think the odds of me getting a medal were really, really high.”

Thrasher’s first Olympics were over. She flew back to West Virginia halfway through the Games, missing the Closing Ceremony because she had sophomore classes in Morgantown.

Amid a bout of food poisoning, Thrasher walked into her fist class of the fall 2016 semester that Aug. 17 just before 8:30 a.m. She was accompanied by “an entourage,” as an ESPN reporter following her put it. It was another reminder that her life had changed.

“I was planning on going incognito,” she joked.

Thrasher was feted throughout the state. On the field at a Mountaineers football game, where she remembers a “U-S-A!” chant that felt like minutes. At the state fair in Lewisburg, where she had a police escort and signed autographs. And on stage at a Brad Paisley concert.

Thrasher had never been to West Virginia before her college selection process.

She chose Morgantown in large part because it was (and still is) the most successful university in NCAA rifle shooting history. When she enrolled, the Mountaineers had won 17 team titles in the 36-year NCAA history of the sport. Thrasher helped lead them to another two in 2016 and 2017, completing a run of five consecutive crowns.

“As soon as I went there, I really felt this sense of community,” she said. “The amazing thing about West Virginia, as a state and the university, is they really accept people as one of their own.

“I’m very grateful that they went all in on me.”

When Thrasher graduated in 2019, she followed the path of many NCAA Olympians. She moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to continue her professional career.

Thrasher looked poised to return to the Olympics after winning the first part of the two-part U.S. Olympic Trials in smalbore in October 2019. But the second part of Trials, originally scheduled for March 2020, was postponed when the COVID-19 outbreak shut down sports (and pushed back the Olympics one year).

The trials finally took place in May 2021 -- after Thrasher and other shooters trained in an abandoned Macy’s. She dropped in the standings and missed the Olympic team by one spot.

“Heartbreaking,” she said. “That’s not going to stop me from making the best possible bid I can towards Paris.”

A bulging disc in her lower back did stop her for a few months last year. She called the injury career-threatening.

“Shooting is not a sport where you’re going to get a concussion, but it actually is a sport where there are injuries because our positions are not really biomechanically sound to give comfort to our body,” she said.

Thrasher tried a number of rehab and recovery methods. The pain eventually subsided, and she feels confident going into the upcoming Olympic Trials, the first half of which take place September 28-October 3 in Fort Moore, Georgia.

First, though, she has another memorable summer moment: getting married to Connor Smedley. They were high school classmates in Virginia, but the wedding will of course be in West Virginia.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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