Champion makes her mark Medal winner is only woman on sharpshooter team


She takes a deep breath, exhales, closes her eyes for a moment and lets her body relax, shutting out everything around her. Then she slowly and steadily raises her left arm -- not a muscle is twitching -- aims the .22-caliber pistol and fires at the target 25 yards in the distance.


Jackie Aiken releases four more rounds -- another hits dead center, the others form a tight pattern nearby. The marks of a champion.

"Shooting competitively is mostly mental, you've got to concentrate and focus in on just that one shot -- forget about what you did when you left home or what you have to do when the match is over," said Mrs. Aiken, an audiovisual technician at Harford Community College and the only woman on the 15-member Maryland State Pistol Team, a group of sharpshooters that competes nationally.

And her concentration seems to pay off. Recently Mrs. Aiken brought home 16 medals -- among them "high woman" for earning the most points in her class in bull's-eye competition -- from the National Pistol Championship in Port Clinton, Ohio.

But the pistol champion, who has set her goal at becoming the top female bull's-eye shooter in the country, didn't always feel at ease with a gun in her hand.

Only three years ago Mrs. Aiken shuddered at the thought of the handgun her husband kept in a kitchen drawer for protection. She wouldn't even open the drawer and push the gun aside to get to some twist-ties.

Equally frightening were the other guns in the house. Some are part of her husband's collection and others he uses in shooting competitions.

"I was scared to death of the guns. I couldn't even see any reason for a person to own a handgun," Mrs. Aiken, 43, recalled.

A newlywed, she didn't have the heart to ask her husband to get rid of the guns.

Instead, she decided to live with them, but safely.

On the theory that "if you have a swimming pool in the back yard, you ought to learn how to swim whether you like to or not," Mrs. Aiken decided to take lessons in gun safety.

Little did she know when she signed up for a class at Firearms Training Inc. she would end up becoming an award-winning sharpshooter, a gun safety instructor, and would learn to understand both sides of the gun control debate.

"Once I heard that the course was being taught by NRA [National Rifle Association] instructors, I went to the class with a real bad attitude," Mrs. Aiken says.

But her image of the gun hobbyist as an overweight redneck with a three-day stubble was quickly dispelled.

Instead, she found her instructors to be professionals who patiently helped her overcome her fear and taught her how to properly handle a gun.

"The first time I held the gun, my fingers were shaking so badly, I could hardly load it," Mrs. Aiken recalls. "But once I fired that first shot, it really wasn't so bad -- actually, I got hooked."

The first night the class was over, her husband took her to a gun shop to pick out her first target pistol, a Ruger .22-caliber.

That was June 8, 1990. Today she owns .22-caliber and .45-caliber custom-built pistols and has changed her attitude about people who own guns, especially women.

"Too many criminals are loose on the streets and women are especially vulnerable," Mrs. Aiken says.

"Just in sheer size they don't stand a chance to physically fight a man, but they can protect themselves with a gun -- if they know how to use it safely," adds the sharpshooter, who is only 4 feet 10 inches tall.

Although not all women are driven to buying a gun out of fear, more and more are becoming fascinated with shooting as a sport, Mrs. Aiken says.

Either way, her advice is to take a safety class before buying a gun.

"By taking a class first, anyone even considering buying a gun can find out what type of gun is suited for them and learn how to handle it," Mrs. Aiken says.

"On the other hand, they may get out on the range and find out they are totally uncomfortable with a gun and should never have one in the house."

Since taking her first gun class, Mrs. Aiken has turned into an advocate for gun ownership, but says she understands both sides of the gun control debate -- the pro-gun advocates who believe that guns fight crime and the anti-gun advocates who say guns cause crime.

"I just wish it [the debate] wasn't so political -- why can't both sides just meet halfway and compromise?"

Though she owns several guns, Mrs. Aiken hopes she will never have to use one to defend herself, but only use her gun to become the best female shooter in the nation.

She practices 15 hours a week on the range -- mostly in New Castle, Del., because there are no ranges in Maryland with turning targets.

In addition, she stays in top mental condition by practicing self-hypnosis and reading books. She also walks daily with hand weights to stay in shape.

"It's not a physical sport, but matches can last six to seven hours and I have to be strong enough to hold up a gun for that amount of time," Mrs. Aiken says.

Mrs. Aiken is used to training for competition.

Eight years ago she was the national woman's champion in wild water kayaking, but gave up the sport when she wrapped herself around a bridge piling and had to stay underwater longer than she cares to remember.

Today she leaves kayaking to her husband and instead concentrates on his initial hobby of bull's-eye shooting.

"And if she continues to consistently improve, there's no doubt in my mind she'll be the best shooter on the team and eventually in the nation," says Ed Grove, the coach of the Maryland State Pistol Team.

"She has a winning attitude and when she goes to championships, she leaves her mark."

Adds Carl Rich, her first instructor and now teaching partner, "Jackie has the ability to concentrate, to hold the gun steady and with each shot she tries to achieve something higher.

"She's very competitive, but even as good as she is, she never tries to show off, and that's definitely the mark of a champion."

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