When Vera Koo enrolled in a firearm safety course in the late 1980s, she couldn’t have looked more out of a place. She was a petite, Chinese-American woman in a class of mostly men. She had no idea this “man’s world” was about to turn her life upside down.
In The Most Unlikely Champion, she shares her story of perseverance that eventually transformed her into the most unlikely pistol champion, an eight-time winner of the Bianchi Cup in the Women's Division, America’s most prestigious action-pistol championship. In this memoir, she narrates how she had plenty of experience as a woman in a man’s world. She’d grown up in Hong Kong, where conservative Chinese values told women their place was in the home, where they would serve their husbands as supportive wives and mothers.
When Koo was twelve, her father moved the family to the United States. With new opportunities came new challenges. Koo and her husband, Carlos, navigated the male-dominated world of real estate, only to find their business teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. They tried to build a family, but were shaken, time and again, by unexpected tragedies. Throughout the journey, she developed a deep faith in God which helped her the survive pain and disappointment threatening to crush her.
The Most Unlikely Champion tells a story of triumph and tragedy, persistence, and pain. But more than that, it’s about how faith and hard work can help a person achieve more than they thought possible.
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About the Author
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Vera's family immigrated to San Francisco when she was 12 years old. She and her husband, Carlos, have a successful business and are the proud parents of three children.
Prior to retiring from sport shooting just 6 months before turning 72, Vera competed in the regular Women's category, as well as the Senior/Super Senior category, in which she competed against only male shooters. As one of the elite female athletes in the growing sport, Vera enjoyed mentoring young shooters as she continued to compete at the highest level. Follow her website, www.verakoo.com, for updates about her career, her blog, and her appearances.
The Most Unlikely Champion is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
On the Range: April 2013
I've always liked being alone on the shooting range. When I started shooting in my late 40s, I usually shot by myself because I didn't have any opportunities to shoot with other people. Shooters looked at me – a slender, middle-aged, Chinese-American woman – and couldn't believe I was a shooter, too. Maybe they didn't know how to approach me. Whatever the reason, I got used to shooting alone.
After years of shooting on my own, I wouldn't want to change now. I like to stick with what works. Some shooters view range time as an opportunity to socialize. Me? I'm there to focus on my practice. With nothing to distract me, I can achieve that rare form of perfect concentration, the kind that all competitors know well. My solitude is my strength.
I'm a woman who has spent her life in cultures dominated by men. I know talent and luck aren't enough to get what you want in this world. You've got to work harder than everyone else, too. Whenever I feel like quitting, I think back to one of my first shooting mentors, Jim O'Young. If I ever complained or said, "This is hard," Jim would look at me and ask: "Do you want to quit, or do you want to keep going?" And I never quit.
It wasn't at all strange, then, that I was alone at the range on a cold, damp afternoon in mid-April. If most shooters don't like shooting alone, they really don't like shooting in the rain. Maybe I don't necessarily like it, either, but I also understand you can't choose the weather. If you plan to be a shooter for a long time, you have to accept that you're going to end up shooting in all kinds of weather. If you're only prepared to shoot in the sun, you're going to have a lot of problems when it rains or gets cold. I once shot in a competition where it was 25 degrees. You have to prepare to be comfortable in any environment. Rain is just another variable a shooter has to prepare for – and if you prepare for it, you can master it.
Normally, I practice shooting near my home in California, but every March, my schedule changes. May is when the Bianchi Cup, one of the NRA's most prestigious action pistol shooting championships, is contested in Columbia, Missouri. As a competition that values precision over speed or flair, it's become my best competition over the years. By 2013, I'd won the Bianchi Cup women's championship a record eight times, including six in a row in the mid-2000s. I was also a two-time women's gold medal winner at the World Championships and had won four team gold medals at the World Action Pistol Championships.
These victories might not have been surprising if I'd grown up around guns, but I'd grown up a traditional Chinese girl in Hong Kong. I was an art major in college and devoted most of my life to being a supportive wife, mother, and business partner. I didn't touch a gun until my 40s and didn't start sport shooting seriously until my life was shaken to its very core. I've probably been the most unlikely pistol champion in America.
Leading up to the 2013 Bianchi Cup, I hadn't been in the right mental place to shoot my best. I was distracted, and my preparation slipped. I don't mean that I hadn't been winning, although I hadn't. To me, competing isn't about beating the other shooters. It's about performing at my absolute best under the circumstances. I hadn't done that during the last few Bianchi Cups. But following a strong run of competitions at the end of 2012, I was confident I would be at my best again for the 2013 Bianchi Cup – even though I was 66, and most of the top female competitors were younger than my daughters.
My longevity in the sport has something to do with the shooter's ability to focus and to tolerate discomfort and hardship. In fact, the best shooters thrive on those things. We're at our happiest when we're pushed beyond our normal comfort zones. Standing in the rain for long hours, your hands aching from firing nearly a thousand rounds a day, isn't what most people would consider fun, but it's when I'm most focused.
Other events in the world also had put my training in perspective. A few days earlier, the Boston Marathon bombing had occurred. The images horrified me, just as the stories of heroism deeply moved me. I couldn't stop reading about the men and women who had rushed to the fore at a time of need to help their fellow citizens. Their heroism was on my mind as I wrapped up my afternoon of shooting. I felt good about my preparations and inspired by my fellow countrymen. This was going to be a better year of competition for me; I could feel it.
As I wrapped up, I moved across the range to throw away one of the targets. This required stepping over a high rope, which marked the boundary between the shooting area and a path leading to the garbage cans. It was the kind of thing I'd done countless times while on the range – dozens of times during this practice trip alone. It was such a simple motion that I don't think I gave it any thought. As a girl, I was shy and petite, but after I married my husband, Carlos, at the age of 23, I'd become quite the athlete. Whether it's snow or water skiing, horseback riding, windsurfing, or sport shooting, I'm always on the move. I never thought that crossing a high rope on the range would change my life.
It was shocking, then, when I felt myself falling forward. Part of my boot caught on the rope. As I hit the cold, wet ground, I felt a searing pain shoot through my right leg.
I wasn't immediately sure I'd broken it. But as I lay there, the pain grew worse, and I knew that whatever the injury was, it was probably bad. I took a deep breath and said a prayer, as I so often do in times of need, before rolling a little to my left to check the damage.
What I saw wasn't good. When I moved my right leg to the left, my foot hung to the right. I knew I'd broken my bone. I could feel the afternoon's chill in my body despite the five layers of clothing I wore. With a broken leg, wet ground, and night falling, I knew I was in trouble.
Being an athlete in a sport where precision and quick decision-making are imperative has worked to my advantage many times, but perhaps never more than lying there on the cold, damp, Missouri ground, my right foot just hanging from my leg. Despite the pain, I didn't panic. I quickly considered my options. I knew my cell phone was in my rented SUV, about 25 yards away. I could yell for help, but the road was at least 75 yards away, and it was made of gravel. On a cold day like this, with a slight drizzle falling, no one would have their windows down. The odds of someone hearing me weren't good, and yelling would just waste precious energy.
I also knew I could stay put, try to conserve energy, and hope someone would find me. This was appealing, as it would allow me to minimize any further damage to my leg. But it seemed unlikely anyone else would come to the range that day, which meant I'd have to spend a night outside in freezing temperatures. I also didn't know if the break had severed any blood vessels. If I was bleeding, I wouldn't make it through the night.
My last option, and the most unpleasant one, was crawling to the parking lot, more than 25 yards away, and somehow mustering the strength to pull myself up into my large SUV. Every movement, no matter how slight, sent searing pain shooting through my leg. The thought of crawling 25 yards was nearly unbearable.
But after a quick deliberation and considering all my options, I knew it was the only choice. No one was going to help me. I would have to save myself.
I needed to move quickly, before the cold and shock set in. But I also needed to mentally prepare myself for the long, painful journey ahead. It's funny how the smallest things can change our perception of the world. Just a minute before, 25 yards had seemed like nothing to me, a distance I could easily cover in mere seconds. Now, all of a sudden, 25 yards seemed like an almost unbearable journey. The world had changed right before my eyes.
I didn't want to crawl, but I had no other choice. Once more, I thought about the recent victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. I told myself that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to what they'd overcome. If they could do it, so could I.
Despite the pain, my thoughts were clear. I prayed constantly. I truly believe that I had help, someone guiding my thoughts and helping me focus. God's presence was with me the entire way. I don't think I could've made such big, quick decisions on my own. For instance, I somehow knew I needed to elevate my broken leg. If I dragged it across the ground, I'd tear more tendons and blood vessels, risking further damage or even infection. But how could I have known this without any medical training and under the stress of that moment? I couldn't have, unless someone was helping me. That someone is the one who is always with you, guiding your thoughts even when you're unaware of it: God.
I took off my raincoat and wrapped it around my leg to provide support. I also discovered that if I lay on my left side and elbow, I could hold my right leg up at a 45-degree angle. My three layers of pants helped support this position. This wouldn't have been possible if I weren't in very good physical shape. Being only four weeks away from the Bianchi Cup meant I was in the best physical shape I'd be in all year.
Bracing myself for the pain, I began to crawl very slowly toward my car. It was immediately clear that I wouldn't complete the journey in one effort. Anytime I moved my leg in any direction, excruciating pain flooded through my whole body. In desperation, I remembered a trick I had used 40 years before, when I was learning to ski. If I looked at the entire downhill in front of me, I would be paralyzed by fear at the steepness ahead. But if I focused on the three feet in front of my skis, where the ground was manageable, the journey became less terrifying.
I looked at the 25 yards ahead of me and broke it into manageable distances. I found three rocks along the way, and those became the stations on my journey. All I have to do is reach that first rock, I told myself. Just get to the first rock. Once I reached it, I took a deep breath and then turned my attention to the second rock. By focusing on the few feet in front of me, I pulled myself to the parking lot.
When I reached my SUV, there was one final problem. My leg was shattered, and although I was in good physical shape, I wasn't sure I had the upper body strength to pull myself up to where my phone sat in the cup holder. Somehow, some way, I lifted myself up and reached into the vehicle. Finally, I called 911. Over the last 20 years, I've become a fiercely independent person, but I have to say, I've never been so relieved to hear someone else's voice.
Once the ambulance arrived, I relaxed a bit and evaluated my situation. I knew none of my family would be able to arrive at the hospital before the next day, so I called a friend to meet me at the hospital. He was a nuclear medicine scientist, and I wanted someone familiar with medicine at my side. I like to be prepared. Then I contacted my daughter, Christina, who also lives in California, and my husband, who was in Denver, Colorado, on a business trip. I asked Carlos to cancel my flight and rental car for the next day. After that, I contacted my hotel in Louisiana, where I was supposed to head the following day for a regional shooting competition, and cancelled that reservation, too.
Perhaps it seems strange that in an emergency I worried about such ordinary, everyday tasks. But during my life in business and during my many years as a shooter, I've learned that preparation is everything. I firmly believe that life is 20 percent what happens and 80 percent how you respond. Life will throw unexpected emergencies your way, and the best way to handle them is how you would handle anything else, be it a delayed flight or a snowstorm. You do what needs to be done. You can't allow outside events to excuse you from not performing your responsibilities.
Once I got everything in order, I reflected on what the injury meant. I wasn't overly emotional, but I also knew it would mean missing the Bianchi Cup, the competition I spend my entire year preparing for. It would be the first one I would miss in 16 years. It was difficult, knowing how much work I'd put into practice, especially because I was shooting at a very high level. But as part of my faith, I put my trust in God. Experience has shown me that He has a plan for my life, even if I might not understand the plan at first. Whatever the reason behind my injury, I needed to view it as an opportunity. I couldn't do that if I pitied myself.
At the hospital, I found out I had a spiral fracture of my right tibia and fibula. The doctors were impressed with how well I was holding up, despite my age. While four very large men on the hospital staff set my leg – this was the most painful part of the night! – one of the doctors actually researched my website. After reading about my shooting career, he told me he had no doubts I'd fully recover. Because I would need surgery to stabilize my leg, he also promised they would insert the smallest metal rod possible. This would promote healing at a faster rate so I could return to shooting as soon as possible.
I immediately knew recovery was going to be a long road. But I also knew I'd recovered from worse. I wanted to begin the process as soon as I could. So although the doctors thought I would want to sleep, they didn't know I adhere to the oldest Chinese healing tradition: eating. A lot. I'd just been out in the cold and rain, and I needed to get my strength back any way I could. I wanted dinner.
After eating a big dinner, I settled in. I wanted to sleep, but I was alone in a strange place, and my life had changed in an instant. I tried to stay attentive and be friendly to the hospital staff, but it was difficult. I was worried.
I was surprised when, at 3 a.m., my daughter Christina entered the room. I didn't think anyone would arrive until the next morning. She had a long flight, and the weather was not good. The rain had turned to snow. But there was my eldest daughter, who had flown in and driven two hours on snowy roads through the night to be at my side. It gave me comfort knowing I had raised such a reliable young woman. Finally, I felt safe enough to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, that moment before I remembered where I was and what had happened was wonderful. Then reality hit me like a ton of bricks. No matter how much trust I put in God, it was impossible not to be disappointed about the injury and missing the Bianchi Cup. I'm an active person, and being confined to bed goes against my nature. But I also knew I had to look forward at the road God had put in front of my feet and not at the road I wished were in front of me. My obstacles and challenges had suddenly changed from shooting at a world-class level to just learning to walk again. I knew I needed to tackle this challenge with the same devotion and seriousness I would've used to tackle any other.
The surgery to install a small metal rod went well, and the doctors told me that my leg, although broken, would heal faster because of the procedure. For many people my age, the procedure would have been impossible. Their bodies would have been too frail to handle it. But the years of looking after my body had paid off. Still, the doctor told me it would be a long road back. I wouldn't be able to touch down with my right foot for six weeks. I'd likely have to use a cane for at least six months. The swelling and pain could last for more than a year.
Hearing this, I immediately promised myself something: I would shoot at the 2014 Bianchi Cup. It was just over a year away, but I would be there. That morning, I started plotting my recovery. I imagined the other shooters standing at the line. I imagined myself standing with them. I knew it wouldn't be easy. In fact, I knew it would be one of the more difficult challenges of my life.
But that was OK. It wouldn't be the first time I'd beaten the odds and overcome something that everyone thought would break me.
Excerpted from "The Most Unlikely Champion"
Copyright © 2017 Vera Koo.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
On the Range: April 2013, 1,
The Beginning, 10,
Who is That Old Woman?: April 2013, 18,
Recovery: Summer 2013, 27,
The Right Mentor, 28,
Shing Ping, 47,
Returning to America, 56,
Modest Goals, 61,
Baby Steps: Autumn 2013, 67,
A Devastating Discovery, 69,
The Right Direction, 87,
Getting Stronger: November 2013, 92,
Getting Stronger: Part II, 94,
Something Bigger to Focus On, 100,
The Bianchi Cup, 107,
The First Match Back, 111,
My Faith Confirmed, 113,
My Family's Strength, 124,
My Peak, 128,
The "Three-peat", 130,
Final Preparations: Spring 2014, 137,
Still Standing, 143,
The Next Life, 145,
An Unexpected Challenge, 150,
A Woman in a Man's World, 157,
About the Author, 161,