It has not been a banner year for the West Virginia University athletic department.
The football team barely squeezed past .500 and wound up in something called The Pinstripe Bowl, the men’s basketball team has flirted with .500 all year and seems destined to spent its off-season either in a minor tournament or none at all.
The latest financial statement showed record losses, thanks to a $20 million fee to exit the Big East.
Only the women’s soccer team could win a Big 12 championship in the ashes of all the other disappointments, but the university’s most reliable sport is about to move into its national championship phase, and WVU seems to be standing on the verge of its first national title since 2009.
If it can pull it off, it would be the 17th national championship the school’s shooters have won, and this one would assuredly be won on the shoulders of Petra Zublasing, a rather incredible athlete having an incredible senior season.
A year ago she was in the background as her boyfriend and then teammate, Nicco Campriani, moved front and center as the team’s featured shooter in the winter and winner of a gold and silver medal at the London Olympics.
She competed in the Games, but found her greatest contribution to be to his cause.
“For these,” he said, displaying his medals during a press conference upon his return to Morgantown, “I really have to thank Petra. We shared the Olympic experience together and a lot of days she really saved me. She helped me recharge the battery.”
She acknowledged her role and understood that it somewhat detracted from hers.
“He says I saved him simply because when he said he was freaking out, I was not. It’s hard to be at the Olympics as a couple because you try not to be in two Olympics. You have your own Olympics and you don’t want to be in your boyfriend’s,” she said.
“It’s a hard thing to do, but we did a great job of it. When he was stressed out, I tried to assure him. I wanted him to know whatever happened I would be there. Like, if you lose tomorrow, it’s not going to matter to me. I’ll still like you. I liked you before and I like you now.”
Zublasing did not come home with a medal, but she realizes that she played a huge role in his and was not in any way disappointed in her own performance.
“In my competitions, I did everything could. I left time for myself to prepare as best I could. I shot a great match. I learned lots of stuff. It was hard for me at the beginning to understand that since I didn’t win a medal I didn’t do bad … but I really didn’t do bad.”
Now, though, she is on her own mission in these NCAA’s, well prepared not only from the Olympic experience but from a lifetime of preparation for far more than just a competition.
She is as different a type of athlete as her sport is different from those most Americans have come to know as she explained recently in an interview on the WVU athletic website.
“It’s hard for someone who doesn’t do any shooting to understand shooting because the variables are different. You have a sport like football that is really active. You have to go, you have to get that person on the ground or get the ball across the goal,” she said. “We don’t. We don’t move.”
Think of that for a moment, of a sport in which you go nowhere.
“Take a 100-meter runner, a sprinter. He starts, 3-2-1. His body comes forward. The adrenalin flows and he runs,” she said.
“It’s kind of the same thing. The only thing different for us, is you go to the starting point. It’s 3-2-1 start and you have all this adrenalin pumping in your system but you go ‘I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know how to deal with this.’
“You start breathing, you start pulling out tricks you learned in the office. You start talking to yourself, you start imaging things. That’s the difference between most sports and our sport. There is no movement. You can‘t let it out. You can’t be screaming or throwing things on the ground.”
You stay within yourself.
“There’s like a general concept. First to build a house, you put up the walls. Then you need to paint the walls, whatever colors you like, say pink and red. But let’s say in a week your wife tells you red is not a good color so you pain them green,” the native Italian said.
“I haven’t found a color for my walls yet. That’s like shooting. It’s changing little things, even little sensations in your body. Shooting is all about feeling things, feeling how your arm feels or how your body feels.
“It is weird things like feeling heavy or feeling light, push or pull on stuff that you are not necessarily going to need outside the (shooting) range.”
It is learning about yourself, controlling yourself, and then finding success.
“I want to get the point in two years where I can say I’m exceptional,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to it. This is my last nationals. I’m really sad, because I really like being here. Also, just to try again to do my best for the team as it strives for what it wants.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.