Keith Elliott at Large: Mantra steadies the marksman in mauve: Colourful crackshot relies on chanting and yogic ability to slow his pulse almost to zero as he targets a place in Games gun lore

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The Independent Online
JON STERN is a bit embarrassed to wear the hat his mum has made. Bit strange, that, considering his usual cap looks like it has been borrowed from Goofy. But it is not so much the long ear flaps (designed to keep out the sun) that worry him. It's the legend 'Zeus' emblazoned across the front.

'We call him that because he shoots like a god,' said his sister, Samantha, only half in jest. And so he does. Britain's top performer in the strange discipline of 50-metre prone rifle, Stern is our brightest hope for a shooting medal in the 1996 Olympics. Last year he took a rare British gold in a World Cup competition, and he won bronze in the World Cup final, setting a British record with a score of 699.1.

Pretty impressive, huh? But Stern, from Golders Green, London, will still be chewing his nails this weekend. Britain's selectors meet tomorrow to decide whether to guarantee him a place in the team for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. A fixture clash in April means Stern will miss the English championships, the traditional route for a Commonwealth place, because he is representing Britain at a World Cup match in Havana. Although Stern has won the English title four times in the past six years, his selection for Canada is by no means certain.

Stern is different from your common rifleman. He scorns the shooter's traditional drab brown and green, and prefers a hand-made mauve, blue and black shooting jacket in leather and canvas, which looks as if it was designed by Joseph and Joseph. And he is undeniably overweight. 'I do very little keep-fit training,' he said. 'I've been a slob at sports ever since schooldays. Most of my training, except for a few stretching exercises, is mental training.'

He has a mantra that he chants to himself for every one of the 60 shots fired at that target 50 yards away. (Prone shooters, lying on their stomachs, have up to 90 minutes to complete the series. Stern rarely takes more than an hour). He repeats 'Relax - Concentrate Memory - Confidence'. And then he hits the tiny centre of the target, time after time.

Stern, 28, is so accurate that in practice sessions, he rarely scores under 100 out of 100. But his wife has just had a daughter, born six weeks prematurely, and it has affected his concentration. In training sessions his scores have plummeted.

To what? 'Oh, 99s, sometimes even 98s.'

There is no high-powered sight making the target look like a bus magnified by a telescope. The sights on his .22 rifle are merely aiming circles. Try to imagine even seeing an ant-sized dot 50 yards away. There are further problems. The light bullets travel subsonically and are prey to the vagaries of shifting winds, while changing light and even mirage on warm days can deceive the shooter.

'It's not really about eyesight,' Stern said. 'I don't think my eyesight is all that good. This sport is all about not bottling it, not getting nervous, recognising all the conditions on the range and being completely in control.'

He has not always shot like Zeus. It all started when he was 13 and a neighbour took him to the local shooting club. 'I was completely crap, but I kept going because I enjoyed it, and after about four years it suddenly clicked.'

The rewards are few. 'The prizes are usually teapots and decanters,' Stern said. 'Later this year, there's a Mercedes as top prize for an air rifle competition, but you don't get that in prone rifle.'

Like most of those who find relaxation down on the range, he shoots for the pleasure of achieving higher and higher scores, rather than as a prelude to blasting things with wings.

Having a rifle has its problems. It means accepting middle-of-the night police raids to check that guns and ammunition are locked up. Going abroad is another nightmare. Travelling through airports with bullets and gun pads in your luggage means hours rather than minutes to pass through Customs. No wonder shooters need to be calm.

Research has shown that the best shots are able to slow their pulse almost to zero. This yogic ability is doubly important to Stern, because he suffers from bad hay fever. 'The shooting season here always coincides with the hay fever season. But just before I shoot, it seems to disappear.'

Pre-competition, many top shooters listen to baroque music because its stately pace is supposed to be ideal for slowing the pulse. But Stern will listen to Handel's Messiah, Jacqueline du Pre or Pink Floyd, as the mood takes him. Much of his preparation is done sitting at his desk in London, where notes egg him on to success. One shows three concentric circles bisected by a straight line, the picture he sees through his sights as he stares up the range.

'You have to be positive in this sport. I reckon I have beaten half the competitors before I even start shooting. In a final, where the top eight compete, that means I only have three people to beat.

'When you get down to the last eight, there are sometimes 200 people watching. The whole of amateur sport in this country revolves around people making excuses for their own poor performance. You can't do that in shooting. It's such a personal sport: there is no one to blame but yourself.'

A lesson here, perhaps, for certain sporting 'gods' who would see nothing odd in wearing a hat saying 'Zeus'.

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