After a 40-year wait, a trap shooter returns to the Olympics
By Eduardo Medina and Victor Mather
In 1984, Leonel Martínez of Venezuela competed in the trap shooting event at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He finished tied for 41st.
But he was only 20 years old at the time. Surely, there would be many more chances to come.
Martínez indeed qualified for the Olympics again — but not until two Fridays ago. After a 40-year wait, he will finally return to the Summer Games, next year in Paris.
Martínez, now 60, qualified by finishing second in men’s trap shooting at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile.
“This is how I see things: Age is just a number,” Martínez said in an interview in Spanish.
Now, he is focused on training for Paris, where he will be competing against many athletes in their twenties.
Martínez has been chasing an Olympic medal since his teenage years. He learned trap shooting, in which competitors shoot at clay targets in split-second times, through his father, Alonso Martínez, who competed internationally in the sport. He first tried trap shooting at 17 years old, when his father let him borrow one of the guns.
“Almost immediately, I loved it,” he said.
When Martínez arrives in Paris next summer, it will be the culmination of a four-decade journey that has often come with sacrifice, he said. There were days away from his family, countless hours of training and flickers of self-doubt, especially as his time since Los Angeles increased with each passing year.
Martínez said he still remembered how bewildered he felt in Los Angeles, and how “everything looked so large” at the time. Before his first competition, as he put on clothes shaded in the yellow, blue and red of his home country, he was anxious.
“That feeling doesn’t help you much with results,” Martínez said.
Martínez left those Games without a medal, but said he had planned to be back by the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
When he returned home to Venezuela, however, he quickly became preoccupied with regular life.
He started a business that manufactured disposable items for medical professionals, like scrubs and other tools. He met the woman who is now his wife, Magaly Chacin, and had two children. By the time the 1988 Games arrived, he had retired from professional competition, deciding instead to focus all of his energy on his family and business.
After about 25 years, though, Martínez said, he saw that he had reached a stable place in life. His children were grown, and business was steady, allowing him to take stock of his old dream.
“Once I realized my family was good and everyone was taken care of, I thought, ‘Now I can think about me for a little bit,’” Martínez said.
In 2011, he started training to compete in trap shooting again with the goal of returning to the world stage, and he was struck by how effortlessly the rhythms of the sport came back to him, he said. Firmly grasping the gun and steadily tracking targets felt natural.
“Trap shooting, unlike other sports like soccer or swimming or tennis, is a sport more mental than physical,” Martínez said. “It’s a sport that is 90% mental, 10% physical.”
After coming out of retirement, Martínez competed in several Pan American Games, including in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2011; Toronto, in 2015; and Lima, Peru, in 2019. In Guadalajara, he said, he initially worried about whether he could compete with younger athletes. But by the time he made it to Lima, his confidence was back, and he felt better while competing than ever before.
Age and maturity, Martínez has said, have been benefits in trap shooting.
“My emotions are different, and now I know that I can control my thoughts and feelings,” Martínez said. “That’s why I say I’m better now than I was in Los Angeles.”
Last Friday, though, when he fired the shot that won him the silver medal in Santiago, his emotions overwhelmed him, he said.
Martínez’s Olympic drought is not the longest on record. Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan, an equestrian, had a 44-year gap between competing in the 1964 and 2008 Games. He competed again in London in 2012, at age 71, and finished 40th out of 50 in dressage.
Martínez said he was not treating the Paris Olympics as an opportunity to ruminate about his accomplishments, but instead as a work trip to win a medal.
And he said he had already set a goal for after Paris.
“I started my career in Los Angeles 1984,” he said. “Well, I’m going to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028 — and return to the place where I started.”