Charlotte Kerwood is a shooting star, in every sense. As Britain's Olympic wagon rolls towards Beijing, the vivacious 21-year-old is poised to ride shotgun, bang on target for a medal in a sport that is strictly for the birds. The clay variety, that is.
As an unknown 15-year-old, the little girl from Sussex became the big shot of Manchester's 2002 Commonwealth Games, winning the women's double trap, a feat which she repeated in Melbourne, then had further success in the pairs with Rachel Parish. Kerwood has maintained her medal-winning at World Cup level since switching to the Olympic trap and is now the national No 1, with her anticipated selection in May to be rubber-stamped for Britain's five-strong shooting team.
In the 1908 London Olympics, competitors actually shot live pigeons, something which, one suspects, mayor Ken Livingstone might wish could be repeated in 2012 knowing his pet aversion to the inhabitants of Trafalgar Square. Now they use discs made of orange clay which, at the National Shooting Centre in Bisley, lay splattered across the range like a sea of marigolds, amid hundreds of spent cartridges as Kerwood guns them down with deadeye accuracy. A miss who rarely fails to register a hit.
She began shooting when she was 12 – her parents own a shooting ground near Haywards Heath – and her mother Jan was a county-class competitor. Her father and younger brother were also shooters. "I just thought I'd give it a go and right away I loved it. There's nothing like the thrill you get when you shatter the targets one after the other."
In 2002, just before the Commonwealth Games, she won a scholarship to train with top double-trap coach Ian Coley. However, the event in which she won Commonwealth gold was removed from the Olympics after Athens to be replaced by Olympic trap. "In Olympic trap the birds are released from different directions – left, right and centre, you never know which one it's going to be. Women shoot three rounds of 25 targets." (In double trap, two birds are released simultaneously.)
Kerwood acknowledges that it is an expensive sport and one she says she probably could not have afforded had it not been for the backing of her parents and the fact they have their own shooting ground. Her current custom-made shotgun cost £4,500 and cartridges are £160 per thousand. She uses about 20,000 per year. Fortunately her world-class Lottery funding covers her equipment, coaching and numerous training and competition trips around the world.
Being named Clay Shooting Magazine's Shooter of the Year in 2006 and her rapid progress in the Olympic trap have coincided with the appointment of a new Capello-like national coach, Marcello Dradi, one of the sport's foremost former marksmen – and another Italian hired gun brought in to help our finest shoot straight. As he is based in Bologna, it means frequent visits for tuition.
"Basically he has taught me everything about Olympic trap shooting; how to stand, how to shoot the targets, everything really. He's a hard task-master but a brilliant coach." She is usually there for about two weeks at a time, while at home she shoots every three or four days, mostly at her parents' ground, occasionally at Bisley.
She says her probable Olympic selection hasn't sunk in yet. "I missed out on qualification for Athens by just one point, so I'm determined to make up for that disappointment. We have the European Championships this year as well as four World Cup events so the build-up to Beijing will be hectic. It is quite hard to ensure your form peaks so many times in one year but luckily mine has been quite consistent."
There are only 18 places for female shooters in the Olympic trap event, one from each nation taking part, and they know each other's potential and technique inside out. "As I've only been doing this event for a couple of years I am rather the new girl on the circuit. We are one big family really and any one of us could get a medal. The competition will be very tight but at one time or another I've beaten them all – mind you , they've also beaten me. Everyone is so friendly – until the shooting starts." Her best score is 72 out of 75 – she says anything in the 70s is pretty good. "I reckon if I get 70 I could get into the final."
Sensibly, Kerwood has sought advice from Britain's top trap shooter Richard Faulds, who won gold in Sydney and will be competing in his fourth Olympics. This weekend she is meeting up with Ian Peel, one of the sport's charismatic figures, a silver medallist in Sydney, to talk through his Olympic experience.
"Already the great thing I have learned is that you have to concentrate and settle your nerves. When I am waiting to shoot I try to keep my mind occupied. I do a lot of fiddling with my fingers, pushing the safety catch forward and stroking the trigger. I also talk to myself and run through my head some of the things my coach has been saying to me."
Her boyfriend, Brad Davis, 22, is also a British team member and will be competing in World Cup and European events this year. "The men's competition is probably much tougher because those at the top have been doing it for 10 or 15 years. Experience seems to count a lot there."
At Lewes College, near her home in Fletching, she studied PE and psychology and was a proficient netball player, but says shooting now consumes her life and has no career plan other than staying in the sport as long as possible and perhaps eventually coaching and helping run the family shooting ground.
London 2012 is very much in her sights, when, according to Performance Director John Leighton-Dyson, her prospects will be even better as she matures. He says: "The team will be selected in early May but Charley is definitely in contention. She has made huge progress since the demise of double trap as an Olympic discipline and for someone so young to be medalling at World Cup level is fantastic. She is a very good prospect indeed, no question, for London more than Beijing as it is very rare for a lady to win a medal at a first Olympics."
No British woman has ever won a trap shooting medal, while Bob Braithwaite (gold in Tokyo, 1964), Faulds and Peel are the only men to have claimed Olympic honours. "Charley is a terrific team member, bright, articulate and bubbly," says Leighton-Dyson. "She takes shooting extremely seriously, trains hard and has a good attitude to sport and life in general.
"This is an extremely healthy sport with a large number of youngsters coming into it," he added. "There are over 300,000 clay pigeon shooters in Britain, 60,000 of them shooting competitively, though the elite pool is relatively small because the majority do not shoot the Olympic disciplines.
"It is one where, traditionally, older people have prevailed in getting the bulk of the medals. Three medals out of four are won by those between the ages of 26 to 35. It certainly isn't common for someone of Charlotte's age to get on the podium but it would be fantastic if she did."
Kerwood's likely rivals will come mainly from Canada, Australia, USA, Italy – and inevitably China. "These may be my first Olympics but I honestly believe I can win the gold. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't," says Kerwood.
The girl with the golden gun is certainly worth a shot.
Message from an icon: Ian Peel
As I have been telling Charlotte, the key is concentration. When you are waiting your turn to shoot, you have to wrap yourself in a cocoon. Shooting is more a mental challenge than anything physical. It's about composure and balance. You've got to be able to control your heart rate. It's like walking on a tightrope: any wobble and you're off.
My trick was to sing to myself. When I was holding up the gun, I'd sing: "You fat bastard, you fat bastard, you ate all the pies." The old football chant kept popping into my mind. It began when I was competing next to a man with a bit of a tummy. It seemed to work, blanking all the niggles from my mind.
You must have the ability to concentrate for the three or four seconds before and while you shoot, then relax and shut down. It took me a long time to learn that. It wasn't until I was 30 that I became a good shooter, so Charlotte has time on her side. Hopefully she is learning how to switch off and back on again.
She must take one shot at a time, and not focus on the big picture. If you start dreaming about having that gold medal around your neck, it can get away from you. I've been to three Olympics and you have to try to treat them as a normal competition, even though the pressure will be intense.
It helps that she has such great confidence and a positive personality. I've known her since she was 15, when she won her first Commonwealth gold, and I find her deeply impressive both as a person and a competitor. She has done so well these past couple of years, and I just hope she hasn't peaked too early.
She might need another four years before she wins an Olympic medal but I hope she can get one in Beijing and go on to win the gold in London.
Ian Peel, 47, won a silver medal in the Olympic trap in Sydney in 2004, and three Commonwealth golds, a silver and two bronzesReuse content