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BREAKING BARRIERS: West Texas teen aims for Olympic future

Updated: May. 12, 2021 at 7:22 PM CDT
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GAIL, Texas (KOSA) - In the seemingly infinite number of six-man towns in West Texas, it’s not uncommon for students to juggle multiple activities.

Ryann Phillips is one of those students.

“I do UIL Congress, I do UIL CX debate, and I do persuasive speaking,” Ryann said.

She’s a junior at Borden County High School. But like the conflicting West Texas landscape she calls home, she also has another passion.

“I do shooting sports,” she said with a smile.

An understatement if there ever was one. Ryann is one of the five best female junior shooters in the United States in the bunker trap category and top 20 overall.

“We’ll get asked all the time, ‘Did your dad get you into this?’ Nope. Mom,” her mother, Jodi Phillips, said.

“My mom refused to let me show animals. So, I went through the 4-H list of things I could do, and I found shooting sports and was like, ‘Let’s give this a try,’” Ryann said.

So, she picked up her first shotgun.

“She was really bad,” Jodi said. “She hated it. The gun was too big for her. She was tiny. It kicked. It wasn’t fun.”

Ryann got better. A lot better. And that caught the eye of USA Shooting.

“I have made the junior world cup team, and I’ll get to travel to this summer—or this fall,” Ryan said.

This means she’ll get to represent the U.S. in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Las Palmas, Peru. She’s a big fish in a tiny pond, which can be intimidating to others.

“People are like, I don’t want to shoot with her because she’ll beat me,” Ryann said.

Yet, when she leaves that pond, she has to shake stereotypes.

“It’s just me and my mom,” Ryann said. “And, when we travel places, we’re just two women going into a gun shop looking for shells. And I know we’ve been in places where someone will come up to us and say, ‘Oh, you look lost.’ And it’s, like…actually.”

But those stereotypes are crumbling. To understand how it’s crumbling, one must understand what is crumbling.

The original “handgun,” more like a ‘hand cannon,’ was invented in the 14th century and used almost exclusively by men for military purposes. Fast forward to the late 19th century, and women and guns were heavily frowned upon, illustrated by the Queen Victoria line that “only fast women shot.” “Fast” meaning…well, you get the point.

But what the good queen didn’t know was out West, Annie Oakley was amassing a fortune with her rifle while strongly advocating for women to become more active in shooting.

But it’s one thing to get involved in shooting and a totally different one to be allowed to compete. The first women’s world shooting championships weren’t instituted until 1958, almost 60 years after men’s.

In 1976, Margaret Thompson Murdock, competing against men, became the first woman to medal in the Olympics when she grabbed silver in the three positions event.

But it’s only recently that women’s involvement in shooting sports has skyrocketed, increasing by nearly 200% since 2000. With the rise of social media, the pioneers and trailblazers are no longer overshadowed by men.

“Women are some of the best shooters because it’s a finite thing,” National & World pistol champion Jessie Harrison said. “To press the trigger is a finite thing. Everything else is a gross motor skill. Pressing the trigger is a finite skill.”

At just 17, Ryann is gunning for a spot on the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team in Paris.

“It would be amazing. It definitely seems kind of unreal,” she said. “My travel team spot this year kind of seems the same way.”

Meaning she might be the next Annie Oakley or Margaret Murdock, inspiring the next generation of women shooters – but even more than that.

“I try to talk to girls, guys, young ones, new ones, because I know I really would’ve appreciated a lot of help when I first started,” she said.

But unlike many of the other shooters vying for their sports highest honors, there’s only a handful of Olympic-style ranges in Texas she can practice at. The nearest being 3.5 hours away in Ft. Worth.

“There’s a lot of people who go out and practice every single day,” she said. “And, while it might be amazing, I can’t. But it’s worked out.”

Ryann believes limited time on the range is actually good for her psyche.

“Shooting is a very big part of my life, but it’s not the only thing I do,” she said.

In fact, her ultimate career goal is about as far from gun sports as humanly possible.”

“I would like to open up my own plant nursery or flower shop,” she said.

In the near term, Ryann has already knocked out 12 hours of college coursework. She plans to leave Texas to shoot in college, whether that’s north or east or maybe somewhere with grass; she’s not sure.

But one thing is for sure: She’s locked and loaded for whatever life throws out there.

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