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Taking Aim Fort Worth skeet ace seeks gold in Rio

🕐 9 min read

“So,” asked an eager marksman, “are you a member here?”

The questioner was trying to find a range to host a target shooting event for his Boy Scout troop and wondering who to call. The man he happened to ask, standing near the entrance to Fort Worth Trap and Skeet, was Vincent Hancock, two-time Olympic gold medalist in skeet shooting.

Hancock replied that yes, he was a member, and politely offered to “tell her you came by when I talk to her.” Then he resumed focus on his task: becoming the first Olympian to win three straight gold medals in Olympic skeet shooting.

As the Boy Scout leader departed, the scene earned a few chuckles from bystanders. It was as if they had just seen a country club lifeguard ask Michael Phelps whether he swam laps in that pool over there. Similarities existed, of course. Phelps first took gold in 2004 at the Athens games before Hancock entered the Olympic scene in Beijing four years later. Both have dozens of top finishes in competitions around the world and are celebrated athletes when traveling abroad. Hancock didn’t build Fort Worth Trap and Skeet off Interstate 20 and Texas Highway 2871, but he is laying the foundation in Fort Worth on which to build an empire in the world of shooting sports.

Local members of the westside shooting range call Hancock “Vinny,” a testimony to the comfort he and his family have found in Fort Worth. They have lived in the area for three years, quietly adding world championships in international skeet shooting to the mantle. Originally from Eatonton, Georgia, Hancock could have planted roots anywhere. All he needed was a range to train at and efficient access to international travel. He has established world records at competitions from Acapulco to Azerbaijan and has earned World Cup titles in Germany, South Korea and elsewhere. But, when looking for a home for his wife and two daughters, Hancock said, Fort Worth presented the best combination of options.

“We know one family that lives here in Fort Worth,” Hancock said, “and they said, ‘Hey, you should really look into Fort Worth.’ And it seemed like every trip I would go on since then, I’d meet someone from Fort Worth. And everyone talked about how awesome it was.

“Everyone said Fort Worth was a great place to raise a family, and I’m very passionate about my wife and kids,” Hancock said. “We looked into Dallas, but Dallas is a little too fast-paced for me. I’m from the country and I kind of like to have my space. We flew into DFW [International Airport] in July of 2013 and were driving from DFW on 121 into Fort Worth. We peeked over the hill and saw the Fort Worth skyline, and my wife looked at me and said, ‘This is where we’re moving.’ And it just seemed like it was right, and everything kind of fell into place after that.”

Hancock approached Fort Worth Trap and Skeet and asked whether the range could provide the type of access he would need to train competitively.

“I said, ‘If we move here, can I have a range to practice on?’” Hancock said. “They said ‘Absolutely.’ So they gave us the opportunity, and we took it.”

The family set its sights on Fort Worth, but it was not the first time Hancock had followed his wife’s lead.

“She was at a match in Fort Benning, Georgia,” he recalled when asked how he met his wife. “She was a shooter as well. I saw her, and she did a little hair-flip thing and I followed her pretty quickly.”

He has trusted her judgment ever since.

Cut to a scene several years later at the London Olympic Games, and Rebekah Hancock offered the same prescience that would guide the family to Fort Worth.

“In London in 2012, I had shot my first round, and Rebekah came up to me and said, ‘You know you just won your second gold medal, don’t you?’ And I still had two days of shooting left, but I just knew it,” Hancock said. “That feeling was there. Any elite athlete, when they just know they’re going to win … you can’t stop them.”

So, with an inkling, a gut reaction, a scenic first impression and some divine guidance, the Hancocks came to Fort Worth a year later.

“We honestly don’t know [what made Fort Worth home]. It’s probably a God thing. We prayed about it for over a year, trying to figure out where we were going to move. We looked at a bunch of different places in Georgia, places closer to my hometown. Closer to Athens, because I’m a big UGA fan. But nothing worked out there. There weren’t any ranges around Athens, or not really around Atlanta, that had what I needed, so we started branching out and looking in Alabama. And Houston, because I’ve got quite a few friends that live in Houston. But here, they hold the door for you. They say ‘Yes, ma’am’ to my wife, and that’s something I grew up with. That’s huge.”

Beyond courtesy and comfort, safety and familiarity are values Hancock holds in high regard.

“We love taking the kids down to Sundance Square. We can go downtown and feel completely safe,” Hancock said. “Whether that be day or night. Here in the U.S., or overseas, there are some places that you’re scared to go downtown. Here, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Recreational skeet shooters may not recognize Hancock when they go to Fort Worth Trap and Skeet, even as he has been logging six days a week there for practice. However, he receives plenty of star treatment overseas. And most publications, national and international, have picked him to win his third gold in a couple of weeks.

“Italy is my favorite place to shoot,” Hancock said. “That’s where I won my first world championship. That’s where I won my world championship last year. The Italians, knowing I’m Italian, really love me. They’ve known me since I was 16. The refs come up and take pictures with me. It’s nice knowing you have support in what you’re doing. They have a million competing athletes in Italy shooting. Plus, my sponsors are Beretta and Nobelsport Italia, which are based there.”

Hancock said the shooting sports have a strong following in Italy, but that the sports are growing in the United States. Competitive shooting was not a sport that was offered at Gatewood School, which he attended in Eatonton. But, replete with a placard at its entrance acknowledging his Olympic success, the school has added it to its extracurricular offerings. As have several hundred other U.S. schools over the past decade.

By the time Hancock was 14, he was on the Junior National team for skeet shooting, and his star was rising like the clay targets he routinely picked out of the sky. He had been working to balance his passion for baseball with his emerging talent as a marksman, arranging practice times with coaches and working to fit it all in.

Hancock’s capacity for shooting skeet, however, grew faster than he did. Eventually, he had to accept some of the uncontrollable realities that come with growth plates. While he remained a competitive pitcher for the Gatewood baseball team, his opponents were getting taller or bigger. He decided to embrace his fateful height – 5-foot, 8-inches – and continue to focus on his shooting. But the decision did not come easy, especially for a kid who grew up wanting to play nothing but baseball.

“It’s not easy going to a school where everyone plays baseball, basketball and football. And if you don’t play one of those sports, then you don’t play,” Hancock said. “I came to tell people that God made me shorter so that I could see the bottom of a target – so that I’d have a target to shoot at!”

Hancock remains grateful for the support to pursue skeet shooting from Gatewood’s administration.

“Thankfully, I had a good headmaster. She told me: ‘Go do what you’re going to do. This is obviously what you’re passionate about.’ I missed 40 to 50 days of class all through high school to compete. I was able to make up all my work, and my teachers, for the most part, worked with me extremely well. And that’s what allowed me to make the world championship team at 15, and going to that first World Cup at 16, and winning all of those medals in ’05. I was the youngest one to ever win a World Cup.”

And Hancock plans to target his sport’s growth after his return from the games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which run Aug. 5-21.

“I’ve actually started a company with a couple of friends of mine in Europe, and we’re going to do some clinics in Europe and Asia,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of interest from other countries wanting us to come in and teach their kids, and to even teach some of their elite athletes. Between the three of us, we’ve got seven or eight world championships and four Olympic medals. So we’ve got quite a bit to draw from, and none of us shoot the same, which I love.”

Hancock has “less than a handful of students” he works with now. But that could grow before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“I like to be picky about who I work with on a consistent basis,” Hancock explained, “and, right now, my job is to compete and win medals. But I do want to give back to the sport and help grow it.

“One of my students lives in Great Britain. He’s a good athlete and is on their world team. But he didn’t start shooting until he was 16,” Hancock said. “The student that I work with mainly here, she started when she was 12 and is now about to turn 15. And she’s competed in the national championships in Colorado Springs this year.”

Family will come first, though. It has been a long time coming, Hancock said, and he is looking forward to spending concentrated time with his wife and daughters.

“It’s hard to gauge my career from here’” Hancock said. “I know I’m taking off next year. That’ll be more to focus on different things that I want to do. The business, and travel, and spending time with my kids – actually being home for more than two months at a time. It’ll be nice. My wife and I have been married for eight and a half years now, and I haven’t been able to spend more than two months at home with her. We’re really looking forward to that. I’m pretty confident that I’ll come back for 2020, but we’ll see where it goes.”

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