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Sighting gold, striking silver

The medal was hers. There was no way she could lose it. The 1996 Olympics were about to strike gold for the first time and, it seemed, no one but Petra Horneber had a shot.

The German woman stood erect, sighting down the final target of the day. Milliseconds before, the seven other women in the final had taken their last shots. But it seemed not to matter. Horneber had the event _ the 10-meter air rifle _ well in hand.

This was a breakaway layup. A gimmie putt on an easy green. A routine popup to short. It seemed that Horneber could have strapped on a blindfold and shot behind her back, and still she would win.

For an eternity, she remained at attention, cocked and ready. Seven thumps had been fired by her competitors, but it really didn't matter. All Horneber had to score was a 9.1, and the lowest score of the final _ by any competitor _ had been a 9.2.

Then, it happened. Horneber flinched. She shrugged her shoulders, lowered her rifle. Then she brought it up again and, quickly this time, she fired. Misfired, actually. Her shot flew off target by three-fourths of a millimeter _ a fraction by human terms, a mile for a marksman. Amazingly, Horneber had struck silver in a gold mine.

And so it goes. If the rest of the 1996 Olympics holds up to the first medal competition, it will be a fine Games indeed. Saturday morning's shooting included:

A comeback. Renata Mauer fired 10.7 (out of a possible 10.9) in the final round to win the first gold shooting medal by a Polish woman. Mauer, mother of a 5-month-old daughter, surged from her 17th-place finish in the last Olympics to claim the gold.

A collapse. Of the 80 shots taken in the final round, Horneber's final shot was by far the worst. She scored an 8.8, shooting's equivalent of an airball. "You can say I threw away the gold, but I prefer to think that I won the silver," Horneber said. True, but it is harder to appreciate when an athlete comes from ahead to do it.

A calamity. Mauer's victory came hours after Polish team official Evgeniusz Pietrasik, 48, died from a heart attack suffered during the Opening Ceremonies.

A competition. There are few sports where the standards are as high as in shooting, where a 98 percent success rate is considered a failure. Take American shooter Elizabeth Bourland, who finished 13th despite 32 bull's-eyes in 40 shots.

There are other sports that are more demanding physically, certainly. A shooting competition resembles not so much an athletic field as a shooting arcade where the goal is not gold medals but stuffed bears. But the challenge here is the intense concentration that is demanded for the unbelievable standards. Imagine if Greg Maddux threw 99 percent strikes. Imagine if Dan Marino completed 99 percent of his passes. Imagine what Shaquille O'Neal would earn if he hit 99 percent of his free throws.

This is a competition with a surgeon's precision, where a center shot _ a bull's-eye _ is considered par. Anything below 10 is a disappointment. Anything below nine is a nightmare. Shooters swear that anything from a bad breakfast to a dirty barrel to the athlete's heartbeat can affect a shot. When the center target is no bigger than the "i" in your average newspaper, as U.S. team leader Ernie Vande Zande says, a shooter does not have to be far off to appear as if she is aiming at her foot.

Yet, for most of Saturday morning, none of it affected Horneber, who set an Olympic record with 37 10s and three 9s in the prelims. But even that could not calm the jangled nerves of an athlete overcome by the Olympics.

Ask Ralf Horneber, who watched, horrified, as his wife let the gold slip away. Ralf is also Petra's personal coach.

"It is like having a 40-15 lead in tennis and serving for the match, and still losing," he said. "It is like having a 1-foot putt and missing the hole. She was very nervous. Before the final, she was shaking so badly she could not hold the water bottle still."

This, in a sport where competitors say a shot can be affected by the heartbeat of the shooter. What kind of a chance does a shooter with shaky hands have? This is no sport for the yips.

It was suggested to Ralf that a world-class shooter with a .8 lead on the final shot should win the event. "Not if the person cannot hold the rifle in her hands and is shaking from nerves. There is a lot of pressure in the Olympics."

Perhaps that should be a word of warning to the other 10,000 competitors. Aim carefully. Shoot well. Keep the goal in your sights.

And whatever you do, hope your chances of victory don't get shot down.