BROCKTON, Mass. (AP) — In most family households, guns are discouraged, but things are different in the May household and it has helped Sonya May earn a scholarship to the University of Kentucky and, perhaps, a spot in the Olympics.
May, an 18-year-old senior at Rockland High School, recently signed her letter of intent onto join the Kentucky rifle team next year.
‘‘When I signed the letter of intent, I couldn’t have been happier,’’ said May. ‘‘It was the best day.’’
Earning a scholarship to Kentucky for the rifle team is equivalent to earning a scholarship to the men’s basketball team. Kentucky is currently ranked third in Division 1 and won the national championship in 2011, and since 1997 they've finished runner-up five times.
May has her sights on the biggest sporting event in the summer of 2016.
‘‘My overall goal is to go to Rio in 2016 and compete in the women’s air rifle,’’ said May.
Since qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics doesn’t begin until 2015, May has her eyes on the National Junior Olympics held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She has two years of eligibility left.
What might be even more unprecedented for a lifelong Massachusetts native is that May picked up the sport only four years ago.
May’s grandfather, who competed in rifle during his college days, sent May to an outdoor camp that included rifle when she was 12.
‘‘My grandfather sent me to a rifle camp and I really fell in love with the sport,’’ said May.
When May was only a sophomore, 31-year Kentucky rifle coach Harry Mullins started recruiting her through her father, Todd, due to NCAA recruiting rules that prohibit coaches from talking to student-athletes until their junior year.
‘‘I think it’s great that coach Mullins sees potential in me,’’ said May.
The Kentucky rifle team has 14 student-athletes and only 3.6 scholarships to give out.
‘‘I still haven’t realized it,’’ said May of her sharpshooter skills. ‘‘I got into the sport later (as a freshman) and it’s just difficult to grasp.’’
May realized how good she was at a place unfamiliar to almost all high school athletes: the Olympic trials.
‘‘At my first Olympic trials is probably when I first realized how good I was,’’ said May. ‘‘The coaches were walking and standing behind my point watching me.’’
The decision to stick with the sport hasn’t been an easy one for May or her family.
She has had to sacrifice much, including tae kwon do, a sport in which she competed for 11 years and in which she has a black belt.
‘‘It got to the point where she had to decide between Taekwondo and shooting with all the training time,’’ said Todd May.
She stuck with rifle, which requires a rigorous travel and training schedule. May travels to her club, The Taunton Rifle and Pistol Club Inc., which is 45 minutes from her home. Last year from December to April, May and her teammate, Mackenzie Martin, traveled 12,000 miles, a number that doesn’t include training and closer competitions. For reference, that would be more than 27 round trips from New York to Boston.
That cost falls on her parents.
‘‘We drive and pay,’’ joked Todd May. ‘‘Travel isn’t covered, it’s on the parents to step up and support their kids.’’
May doesn’t know anyone locally who competes in the sport, something that makes her team, the Taunton Marksmanship Unit, that much closer to her.
‘‘It’s not too difficult (to not know anyone else locally),’’ said May. ‘‘The club is 45 minutes away and we all have the same drive. At the club we have the same interests and the drive to do better.’’
Once May picked up the gun, she knew she'd never put it down.
‘‘I never thought about giving up the sport,’’ said May. ‘‘I never doubted my love for the sport, I always had a passion for it and to always try to get better.’’
Marksmanship runs in the May family. In addition to her grandfather, May’s brother Joshua graduated from Army Ranger school in Georgia last week and her father was an Army Ranger.
‘‘It’s been a good week for the May family,’’ said Todd May.
Despite the family history, May doesn’t see herself in uniform.
‘‘I'll leave the military to my brother and dad,’’ she said.
May was highly sought as a recruit. She was contacted by Texas Christian University (2010 and 2012 champions), Memphis (currently ranked 10th), North Carolina State (ranked 14th) and West Virginia (won 13 championships from 1983 to 1998), but the Wildcats stuck out the most.
‘‘I visited the campus and just fell in love with the campus and the people at Kentucky,’’ said May. ‘‘It was a perfect fit.’’
When she’s not shooting targets, May can be found in the Rockland High band playing trumpet, in the National Honor Society, or doing something else that requires a steady hand and precision — knitting.
‘‘It’s kind of relaxing,’’ said May of knitting. ‘‘It takes my mind off things and it results in something nice like a scarf.’’
Said Todd May: ‘‘I'm pretty fortunate, she’s an independent thinker and she can get along with anybody. If she wants to do something, whether it’s school, sports or other activities, she’s going to make it happen. Generally, she doesn’t do anything halfway.’’
May’s success in the sport isn’t because of her physical ability, it’s mental.
‘‘You can be the best shooter,’’ said May, ‘‘but if you don’t have the mental side, you'll just fall apart.’’
Her father agrees.
‘‘Anybody can reach a certain score physically, it won’t be a winning score but they can reach it,’’ said Todd May. ‘‘It takes the mental side for the elite athletes to reach a higher performance.’’
Rifle is a high-pressure sport and May has shown her ability to compete with anybody, anytime.
One example rings truest to her father. May reached the Super Finals, the end of a competition in which the best 15 shooters all compete against one another at the same time.
‘‘Everyone is supposed to be loud,’’ said Todd. ‘‘They’re cheering, there’s music and the announcer is talking.’’
After each shot, the lowest scorer is eliminated.
‘‘I remember one match where Sonya was the last junior standing,’’ said Todd May. ‘‘She had beaten college, marksman team, international and national competitors.’’