MIAMI -- There is gunfire at the Coral Gables Police Range this morning, a loud, echoing crack! Sudden, sporadic, shattering stillness. The sound makes you flinch.
Joan Gladwell is not flinching. This grandmother of five is talking. Gunfire explodes, and she isn't blinking. It's as if she is in her back yard, talking over the titter of sparrows.
Gladwell shoots. Well enough, quite possibly, to compete in the Olympics in Barcelona. She would be 60 then. She is the oldest top-level shooter in the United States -- by 16 years. She would be one of the oldest Olympians in U.S. history, a distinction belonging to Galen Spencer, archer, 64 in 1904.
"My chances are good," Gladwell said, savoring the appraisal over the cacophony of guns so near. "I was always a little insecure, praying I could get through a match without shaming myself. Now I am much more confident. And being older, when the pressure is on, I know I can handle it."
Gladwell and her two grown children own and operate Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, south of Miami but this side of Key West. The kids gave mom an unusual present: the year off with pay to train to be an Olympian.
She still spends a few days each week working in the Keys, but she spends as much time working her passion. At the Gables police range. At the Hollywood Rifle & Pistol Club. With the U.S. Shooting Team in Colorado Springs.
Later this month, she'll join elite members of the team in a week of intense training in Prado, Calif.
"I just want to finish my career going to the Olympics," she said. "I have thought no further than that."
Long ago she was a superb shooter. She was invited to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, "but I don't think I even knew what the Olympics was then," she said. "That was the best age, the best I shot. But I had two kids. A business. A husband."
She said no to Tokyo, and put down her guns, gave up competitive shooting for 15 years until resuming in the early '80s. The kids were grown, and Gladwell was divorced. "I thought, 'Why don't I get my guns out if I'm not too old.' "
Four years ago, she wasn't yet Olympic-caliber, though she won the '87 national championship in air pistol. Now she is better. Gladwell is a contender to be one of two U.S. women competing in sport pistol, and to be the only woman in air pistol. She was fourth in both events at the 1991 nationals, but that was before her gift of priority training.
Now the transformation of grandmother to expert shooter takes place daily, in simple, practiced steps.
Wire-rim glasses come off, replaced by a pair with a darkened right lens and a retractable cover that shields the left. She grasps the .22-caliber pistol with its molded handle. She lights a flame and burns the sight at the end of the gun, darkening it for better contrast. She pulls on sound muffs, hiding the hearing aid in her right ear (the residue of age, and a life of guns). She aims. Shoots.
"I'm ready to quit. This is it for me," she said. "There is just this left. The Olympics."