April 1, 2014
By Renee Peggs
With March Madness in full swing you might wonder if you’ve missed her on Muffet McGraw’s roster. But this freshman from Zionsville, Ind., isn’t shooting hoops. There may not be buffalo roaming, but Erin Coscia’s home is on the range. The shooting range.
Coscia is making her mark as a rising star in air pistol and .22 competition pistol events around the country. Less than three months ago she placed 13th in the nation in both events and earned the right to compete for junior Olympic qualification, which takes place on April 9-14, 2014 in Colorado Springs, Colo. She’s already participated in numerous camps at the Olympic Training Center there, despite this being only her fifth year of shooting.
As a child, Coscia was a serious swimmer. She trained hard and competed well for 12 years as a member of the Riviera Swim Club in Indianapolis. Swimming 200-meter individual medley and 100m butterfly for Zionsville Community High School, she earned four varsity letters and was an academic all-American.
When other girls started hitting their growth spurts, Coscia, powerful but petite, felt like she was watching her dreams sink to the bottom of the pool.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the girls my age and continue on to the national level in swimming,” Coscia says. “I was really unhappy.”
That’s when her dad suggested she try her hand at shooting. Michael Coscia, a ’77 Notre Dame alum, had been a letterwinning fencer in his Fighting Irish days. He also competed in the 1976 Olympic Trials as a pentathlete (swimming, running, horseback riding, shooting and fencing). Shooting was his specialty.
Being a triplet with two brothers (both also freshmen at Notre Dame this year), Erin Coscia is a self-identified tomboy. Their dad introduced them at a young age to gun safety, and supervised closely as they learned to shoot BB guns and shotguns. As a freshman in high school, Erin began entering local and then state competitions. Now, she’s the best in Indiana.
Because no one else in the state competes in her events at her level, she’s had the opportunity to work with the nation’s best coaches. Her main coach is out of Washington, D.C., and has been emailing practice drills and training exercises to Coscia since she’s arrived at Notre Dame. The top pistol coach for the United States Army used to drive up to the Coscia home from Georgia on weekends to train Erin privately. A two-time Olympian from Tennessee has often invited Coscia to train with her.
The transition from swimming to shooting required of Coscia a different kind of discipline. “In swimming,” she explains, “if you’re nervous you can channel that into energy and use it to your advantage. In shooting, you have to calm all that energy and those nerves or else it’ll knock your aim off, you’ll be shaky and miss your mark. Shooting is about 80 percent mental and only 20 percent physical, it’s really different.”
For those (including myself) who aren’t familiar with the training that goes along with shooting, Coscia offers an insider’s tour. “You’re aiming for the bullseye on a stationary target 10 meters away. A large part of shooting has to do with repetition of movement and mental discipline. The only reason I can be training without actually shooting is because I’ve done it long enough, four or five years every single day, so I can picture in my mind exactly what I’m doing. I know the exact number of breaths that I take. I can visualize what the target looks like, what my sights need to look like. You ultimately want to get to where you’re competing in your subconscious because what you see consciously through your eyes isn’t necessarily what is true.”
Momentarily leaving the metaphysical-philosophical axioms hanging, Coscia holds an imaginary gun as she continues, “If you see the perfect line in your sight and it’s perfectly lined up with the target and you think, ‘ok…, now! I want to pull the trigger now,’ you’re going to jerk the gun and miss your mark. [Excellence in shooting] is based on super-fine calibration and the target is so small that any tiny movement will be reflected in your mark. What you want is to start the trigger pull when it looks good; you’re not looking for perfection but just when it looks good. Your subconscious will line it up the rest of the way, but you have to trust your subconscious. That’s always been hard for me as a perfectionist; it’s a neat challenge to let go of conscious perfection and just trust my training.”
In high school, Coscia trained her shooting events for 90 minutes every morning before school, and then had three-hour swim practices every day after school. She trained and competed on weekends as well.
Like all freshmen at Notre Dame, Coscia is not allowed to have a car on campus, nor was she given permission to store her guns so she could train. She understands and accepts the policies. Unlike most freshmen, though, Coscia found herself missing and longing for the routine and discipline to which she was so accustomed prior to her arrival at ND. “I was kind of lost when I got here,” she admits, “because I’ve been in high-level competitions my whole life. I need that.”
So Coscia went through try-outs and walked on to the Notre Dame rowing team as coxswain. “I saw it as an opportunity to stay busy, but here I am competing at the Division I level, being a part of my school, and it’s very enriching. The facilities are great, my coaches and teammates, they’re all really supportive,” says Coscia.
Because of the mental discipline required of coxswains, the transition from shooting to rowing was actually easier for Coscia than swimming to shooting. She quickly learned to navigate the waters and the particular terminology of rowing, alongside teammates who have been rowing for years. In her own words, “they throw you in and you either sink or swim.” [Relative to her earlier athletic outlets, the irony of that statement is not lost…]
Sitting coxswain is about gauging fine movements and calibrating the boat. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen in a race, how the current and the wind are going to affect your start and your run,” Coscia explains. “Not every start is perfect but it’s up to me to stay calm so I can call out the right directions and try to minimize error, especially with eight people in the boat relying on my guidance to help them stay aligned.”
In addition to her coursework and now rowing, Coscia is not losing sight of her potential as an Olympian at the 2016 Olympic Games. When asked about her hopes for the competition next month in Colorado, Coscia genuinely demonstrates that she’s not stressing about it: “I’m not shooting right now but I’m doing lots of visual practice, keeping my arm strength up, and just trusting in all the training I’ve done up to this point.”
Coscia adds that rowing is her sport focus right now because she knows she only has the four years of her Notre Dame career to participate in rowing. For a lot of athletes, Coscia points out, “Like gymnasts, you can only be competitive on the international level for a very short time. Shooting isn’t like that: I have one friend who will be competing in his sixth Olympics in 2016. There’s a lot of longevity in this sport, I’ll have it for the rest of my life, so right now I’m focused on rowing. What a wonderful opportunity it is that I never would have dreamed possible!”
When asked how people react to finding out she’s a competitive shooter, she responds with heightened animation: “I cannot even count the number of times I’ve gotten, ‘Oh, so you shoot people?’ No, I don’t shoot people! Some people are kidding but some are not. It doesn’t offend me because I know they’re just asking a question about something they don’t know about.
“I didn’t know a lot about it and I grew up with a parent who competed at the collegiate level in shooting,” Coscia says. “I would never get mad at something like that, I just explain and show them pictures on my phone; I try to educate them.”
Erin Coscia is aiming for gold for God, Country, and Notre Dame. We’re sure she’ll hit her mark.