Visually impaired ASU alum shooting for gold

He stands 50 meters from the target, right hand fully extended, wrist slightly bent. He takes one step to the left, cocks his head and lines up with the target from the left side.

It is in this exact position when 37-year-old Olympic shooter Jay Shi pulls the trigger. Every time it is the same, and more than half the time, the bullet sails through the air, striking the innermost regions of the target.

This precision and consistency allowed the native of China to qualify for the U.S. Olympic shooting team in both the 10-meter air pistol and 50-meter free pistol for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

But what viewers don’t realize is that in a sport that requires nearly perfect accuracy, Shi’s vision is limited. One of his eyes is impaired from an accident when he was 9.

“Normal people shoot with their right hand and use their right eye to line up with their right hand,” said Shi, an Arizona State alumnus. “In my case, I can’t use my right eye because of the injury. So that puts me at a disadvantage because that puts me in an unnatural position. So with shooting, I’m completely dependent on my left eye. I don’t use my right eye at all.”

Shi is a cross-dominant shooter, meaning he shoots with his dominant eye and opposite hand. He wears standard polycarbonate prescription glasses for his slightly near-sighted left eye while shooting. His right and injured eye has no prescription nor a contact lens, but the polycarbonate shields the iris, which without a lens, can no longer perceive depth or distance, nor allow his pupil to shrink and expand based on light conditions.

Shi said it is like trying to shoot a game of billiards with one eye closed, only the target isn’t a cue ball on a table in front of you, but a target half a football field away.

Freak accident

Shi’s injury came when he was cutting a piece of rope with a dull pair of scissors for a school project. Every time he tried to cut, the blade would fold around the string. Shi decided he would use one side of the scissors to slice the string instead. As Shi was trying to pull the blade in his right hand up against the string in his left, the scissors slipped off the string and went straight into Shi’s right iris.

“Right after the accident everybody was still in shock,” Shi said. “We got emergency care in China and one more surgery in Shanghai, but the medical ability in China at that time wasn’t sufficient enough to bring my eyesight back, so we had to seek medical attention in the U.S. in Johns Hopkins (Hospital) in Baltimore with the help of my grandfather’s friend who was a doctor at that hospital at the time.”

Shi’s parents planned the move to the U.S., and a year and a half after the day of the injury they made their way 7,000 miles west of their home country.

Yumin Shi, Jay’s father, said that he wanted to get his son the best medical attention possible to help his son because he was afraid he would get hurt again without his full vision.

“One time, there was some wire sticking out on the street that almost killed the good eye,” Yumin said. “With only one eye it was difficult (for Jay) to locate the position of it.”

After a few more surgeries Shi’s eyesight was partially restored to where he could use it for everyday activities, but not for shooting. Shi’s family called Phoenix their new home and started their son in archery as an exercise for his right eye.

Chopsticks as arrows

Lining up on the left side is impossible in archery and the target site is a lot bigger so Shi was able to excel with his impaired eye. Finally, the slingshots and bows and arrows that were strewn about Shi’s childhood bedroom, the ones that he had created from chopsticks and rubber bands, became relevant. It wasn’t long before one goal was brewing in his mind.

“It was always my dream to go to the Olympics even when I was in archery,” Shi said. “I never thought it was possible.”

For Shi’s father, the Olympics never crossed his mind.

“I could never dream of him going to the Olympics,” Yumin said. “From my point of view, we started archery to have him use his eye because the body parts — you have to use them — so this way you have to force him to use his right eye to keep his right eye healthy.”

Shi continued archery until right before college when he stopped to focus on his computer systems engineering degree at ASU.

When Shi saw the Summer Olympics were to be held in Beijing in 2008, he decided to give it a shot and try to return to China to compete. Shi said he knew he wasn’t good enough to make it in archery, so he transitioned over to pistol, and what seemed like success at first turned out only to be what Shi called “beginner’s luck.”

He could not find a position comfortable and sustainable enough with his visual impairment for him to have consistent success. From 2006 to 2012 he exhausted countless solutions: rotating 90 degrees, shrugging his shoulder, tilting right and corrective lenses.

Solving the puzzle

Nothing seemed to work for him, and he missed both the Beijing and London Olympics after a three-year hiatus due to the Great Recession, which made him focus on his job as a professional web developer in an effort to avoid being laid off. Finally, in 2013, Shi stumbled on a unique position that would become the first piece of the puzzle.

“It’s like those jigsaw puzzles, you get 250 pieces,” Shi said. “If you’re just missing one piece you’re still not going to have it. Once I had that piece it was like, now I can use that piece to find other pieces and it becomes easier and before I didn’t have any of the pieces. I could finally see where I wanted to get to. Now I’m one step away from realizing the goal where everything is just perfect.”

The competition is 75 minutes for air pistol (using a Walther LP400 air pistol chambered in .177 caliber, 4.5 millimeter pellet) and 90 minutes for free pistol (using a Morini chambered in .22 long rifle caliber bullet). The top eight advance to the final in an elimination-style competition where the lowest scoring competitors will be eliminated after every two shots until only one remains.

Once Shi found his shooting position, his persistence for perfection only got stronger.

Shi’s wife Yuanyuan Wang said Shi spends his mornings practicing at 5 a.m. on an electronic target in their living room, held up by a frame built for Shi by his father. On the weekends, Shi’s at the range almost all day. Wang said even in his sleep, Shi is thinking of the next solution.

“Sometimes after he wakes up he will tell me, ‘I thought up some new ideas that may solve the problem,’” Wang said. “So he thinks about it every second, every day, during work. He will do everything he can to try and figure it out. He will watch the videos, talk to other athletes, talk to his coach, do some research, read books, he will do everything he can because he works as hard as he can.”

One such athlete is fellow competitor Bill Poole, who trained alongside Shi for many years, traveling to Olympic training sites and national championships together. With 10 more years of experience than Shi, Poole acted as Shi’s mentor when Shi began questioning the competitor.

What makes an Olympian

“He was better than me the first day he walked into the range,” said Poole, who also works as a coach. “The attention span, the inquisitiveness and the willingness to seek out others is what stood out to me. He was always asking me questions either about technique or mass procedures or how things are run or what we should do next.”

Poole said he noticed Shi’s quest for perfection early, especially in the way Shi was constantly adjusting the grip of his gun to perfectly fit his hand. Poole said he has been perfecting every aspect of his game for years and this feeds into what makes Shi a great shooter.

“To be able to maintain an absolute peak of attention span for eight or 12 or 16 years is almost humanly impossible, and that’s partially what separates the Olympic level competitors from the rest of us,” Poole said.

Now Shi finally faces the biggest stage in the world. But for Shi, where there is usually excitement, there is relief.

“I felt like my whole entire shooting career, I’m at the start line, then I take a step backwards, and every year I take a step backwards to the point where I’ve backed up until I can’t back up anymore and then from there I started sprinting forward and I made a leap,” Shi said. “The emotion has been culminating for so many years, and for so many years I thought I was working for something that wasn’t possible.”