2 teens in Arlington Hts. Airgun Club sets sights on national title

 
 
Updated 4/2/2015 1:00 AM
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  • Ambrosia Keefe, 18, of Chicago and Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, fire air pistols while training at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights.

      Ambrosia Keefe, 18, of Chicago and Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, fire air pistols while training at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Carson, 15, shows the target he was using during a recent training session. The Arlington Heights teen recently qualified for this month's Junior Olympics in Colorado.

      Luke Carson, 15, shows the target he was using during a recent training session. The Arlington Heights teen recently qualified for this month's Junior Olympics in Colorado. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, loads an air pistol during a recent practice at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. He and training partner Ambrosia Keefe, 18, are Illinois junior champs in air and sport pistol this year.

      Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, loads an air pistol during a recent practice at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. He and training partner Ambrosia Keefe, 18, are Illinois junior champs in air and sport pistol this year. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights fires an air pistol at a target as Ambrosia Keefe, 18, of Chicago, loads her pistol during a practice session at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. The pair are preparing for the Junior Olympics in Colorado this month.

      Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights fires an air pistol at a target as Ambrosia Keefe, 18, of Chicago, loads her pistol during a practice session at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. The pair are preparing for the Junior Olympics in Colorado this month. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, loads an air pistol as Ambrosia Keefe, 18, of Chicago, fires at a target. The pair recently won state championships and qualified for the Junior Olympics in Colorado.

      Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, loads an air pistol as Ambrosia Keefe, 18, of Chicago, fires at a target. The pair recently won state championships and qualified for the Junior Olympics in Colorado. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, practices shooting an air pistol during a training session as he prepares for this month's Junior Olympics in Colorado.

      Luke Carson, 15, of Arlington Heights, practices shooting an air pistol during a training session as he prepares for this month's Junior Olympics in Colorado. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Take a deep breath and steady yourself. Grab the pistol. Take another breath. Extend your arm and raise the pistol slightly above the target. Lower it carefully and pull the trigger -- slowly, your index finger precisely in the center. Then see if you made the bull's-eye measuring ⅜ of an inch 33 feet away.

The sport of air pistol is all about achieving the most intense, "shut the world out" kind of concentration -- no matter how much noise or good-natured jeering in the background.

Ambrosia Keefe and Luke Carson, who compete with the Arlington International Airgun Club of Arlington Heights, demonstrated they mastered that art when they respectively became the women's and men's air pistol junior state champions this year. Ambrosia is also junior state champion in the sport pistol category.

"It's an entertaining sport that requires a lot of mental focus and determination, because in pistol, it's the little things that end up getting you," says 15-year-old Luke, of Arlington Heights.

Controlling your thoughts is key, said Ambrosia, 18, of Chicago.

"If you get a thought stuck in your head of, 'This shot is going to be really bad,' it's going to be really bad," she said. "It's a mental warfare game. If you think to yourself, 'I'm a champion. I can do this,' you will do it -- with the proper training, of course."

Their titles earned the teens a spot in the Junior Olympics later this month in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they will face off against the best in the nation.

So what's the first thing one should know about their sport?

"We take safety as our No. 1 priority over anything," Luke says without hesitation.

Ambrosia agrees. "We spend two weeks at the beginning of the season on safety before we handle firearms," she said.

Luke first tried rifle shooting about three years ago after a family friend mentioned the Arlington Heights club. He eventually moved onto air pistol, which shoots .177-caliber lead pellets.

"I thought it was more of a challenge, and it was different sets of skills. I excelled more," he said. "You need to have focus. You need to practice and have technique."

Ambrosia started at a much younger age, following in the footsteps of her father, a competitive pistol shooter.

"I loved the sport," she said. "I did it all on my own. He did not have to push me at all."

Her father, Mike Keefe, said it's important to teach children about firearms in a positive manner. Ambrosia is competitive by nature, so she took the sport and ran with it from the get-to, he said.

"She strives very hard, and she's had some success, and that's all to her credit," he said.

For the Carsons, it was the reverse -- the son's passion got the father hooked.

"It's more (Luke's) sport than mine," Jason Carson said, "but I've shot once or twice with him in air gun at local competition stuff."

Luke, who also practices in his basement at home, has found something he truly loves. "I'm ecstatic that he's into it," Jason Carson said.

Don Weber, who's worked with national champions during his 20 years of coaching competitive shooting, said Luke and Ambrosia have great potential. Both have a desire to succeed, he said, and it showed in January when they had great qualifying matches for the Junior Olympics.

"Luke happened to put it together and had a very good match on that day," Weber said. "He did what he was supposed to do. It's a great sign of what he can do."

Ambrosia adapts quickly to new environments, he said.

"Maybe with her new coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (which she likely will attend next year), under the conditions there and different coaching, she may excel even better."

Both teens want to continue shooting competitively once they get to college.

Ambrosia, who carries a 3.6 unweighted GPA, is a member of the National Honor Society, participates in cross country and track and field, and volunteers for school-related activities.

She was invited to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, but she wants to review the 12-year military contract carefully before signing it, she said.

Luke, who carries a 3.5 GPA on a 5.0 scale, also might join the military. He wants to study criminal justice and become a police officer.

He played baseball for several years before turning his focus to shooting, and now that he's made the Junior Olympics, his commitment to the sport is stronger than ever.

"It's making me want to practice more, compete more and learn more about the sport -- and how to excel at it," he said.

About 30 percent of the 2,500 pistol and rifle competitors across the country who tried out for the Junior Olympics made it, USA Shooting officials said.

Contrary to one might think, pistol shooting is a physical sport, said the teens, who stay fit by lifting weights and eating a balanced diet. They also abide by a "no sugar" rule before matches.

"It's just like baseball or football or track and field," Ambrosia said. "We're just like any other athlete -- it's just that we shoot at a piece of paper instead of throwing a ball."

Matches can be physically taxing, Luke said.

"I'm constantly drinking water, sitting down after a couple shots. Or when I feel like I've done a little thing wrong, sit down, clear my mind and get focused," he said.

Ambrosia, who also qualified for the Junior Olympics last year, says high-level competitions are quiet only up until the very end.

"In the final they make a ton of noise and put shooters under stress and announce every score," Ambrosia said. "They make it a point to make it very stressful. To separate the champions from those who aren't."

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