Gold is in his sights Olympics: Army duty kept Rob Harbison out of the '92 Games, but the marksman has big plans for Atlanta.

July 05, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Making an Olympic team often has as much to do with timing as it does with talent. Sometimes, the difference can be a pulled muscle the day of a big race. Sometimes, it's a matter of being too young or too old.

And sometimes, it's a case of being called away to serve in the U.S. Army during the Persian Gulf War.

Rob Harbison's first chance to be an Olympic marksman passed the day he heard his name being called out over the loudspeaker at a shooting range in Camp Perry, Ohio, one fall night in 1990. He was being instructed to call his commander in Fort Hood, Texas.

"He told me I had to be there ASAP," Harbison recalled earlier this year. "It would have been nice to go to Barcelona [for the 1992 Olympic Games], but this is what I had trained to do."

Harbison's six-month tour in the Gulf War, where he served as a platoon leader in the First Cavalry Division from October 1990 through April 1991, kept him from making that trip. Without much practice, he missed an Olympic trials qualifying score by less than a point.

But the time he spent in the Gulf provided him with a new appreciation of life in the United States. Though he returned from the Gulf fairly unscathed -- neither he nor anyone in his unit were injured -- it might have led Harbison to the realization of his Olympic dream later this month.

"Had I not gone to the Gulf, I wouldn't have been here to day," Harbison said during an international shooting competition in Atlanta in mid-April. "That's such a lifestyle-focusing event.

"Before I went, I had a tendency to put things off and say, 'One day, I'll do it. Being put in that situation, when I came back to the States, I said, 'Not one day. Now.' My perspective is completely different."

It did not happen immediately. Harbison's first reaction upon returning to his parents' home in Fallston was to spend time with the friends and family members he had missed and to enjoy the comforts most take for granted.

"I wanted to sleep in my own bed," he said. "But after a week, I was feeling that I should be back there [in Fort Hood]."

Harbison returned to Texas, where he began training as a tank commander in the camp's Executive Operations. But his reputation as a marksman led to his being recruited by the Army Marksmanship Unit in Fort Benning, Ga. The unit provides most the members of the U.S. Olympic shooting team.

'Show the world'

"Your No. 1 mission in peacetime is to win competitions," said Harbison, who holds the rank of captain. "We want to show the world that we're the best at what we do."

Harbison, 30, is accomplishing his current mission in life. He qualified in two Olympic events, the 10-meter air rifle and the three-position shooting, and is considered a medal contender in both.

With gold medals in air rifle at the 1993 World Cup in Seoul, South Korea, the three-position shooting at the 1995 World Cup in Seoul and another three-position shooting gold in May at a World Cup event in Munich, Harbison comes to Atlanta with impressive credentials.

Full of confidence

Said world champion Bill Roy: "He's mature beyond his years. I expect him to win."

Said Harbison: "It's like any other sport. We don't have a dominant player like a Greg Louganis who's always going to win the gold medal. There are a lot of contenders."

At an international competition in Switzerland last year, Harbison found himself shooting against an Iranian and a Syrian. And he found the competitive juices flowing even more than usual.

"I humiliated those guys with a couple of big generals from Syria watching," said Harbison.

As with many competitors at the Olympics, Harbison has been training for this since childhood. Growing up in State College, Pa., he learned about rifle-handling safety from his father, James, and his older brother, Andrew.

It came naturally

"Some of my earliest memories involve being taught how to safely shoot a gun," he said.

James Harbison, an engineer, recalled a visit to his brother's house one Christmas when Rob was 7. "My brother had an air rifle, and we had a little contest in the basement," said James Harbison. "Rob was too small to pick it up, so we let him shoot it over our wrists. He beat us. But then we learned that he always beat us."

As a child, he tried a number of sports. After losing in wrestling by the narrowest of margins to the same boy all the time -- "He was the son of the Penn State coach," said Martha Harbison -- Rob Harbison tried track.

"He was pretty small for his age and found out his legs were too short," said his mother. "He told the coach that he was going to find a sport that he could win in. The coach told him that with an attitude like that, he would be a champion."

The sport was shooting. At age 14, he went to a Junior Olympics camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. There he found he could compete with some of the best young shooters in the country.

"That triggered it," said his mother, no pun intended.

Four years later, he earned an ROTC scholarship at the University of Tennessee, where he was a three-time All-American and won the 1987 NCAA championship in air rifle.

"I didn't know what I was going to do after college, but I knew I had a four-year commitment," said Harbison.

Those four years have turned into nearly a decade.

In January, Harbison plans on going to Fort Knox, Ky., to become a basic training commander. It figures. At a place that for years housed the country's gold supply, Harbison might add a couple of pieces to the collection.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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