One shot rings out, then another, piercing the quiet, humid air in Herzliya. Gil Simkovitch watches the rounds rip through their target, silently assesses his success, then stands and sets his rifle down casually, but with care. Sixty meters away, across a stretch of grass and wildflowers, wind whistles through a shredded paper bull's-eye.
It's just another average day at the shooting range for the 26-year-old marksman, a Kfar Saba native who will head to Beijing for his first Olympic contest this summer. Simkovitch qualified to represent Israel in the 60 meter prone event - shooting 60 shots from a prone (lying down) position, from 60 meters away from the target - by placing first in this competition at the World Championship in Munich last May. Standing next to his coach and fellow shooter Guy Starik, Simkovitch won by a narrow, but critical, margin.
"He had to tell me I had won," a shocked Simkovitch recalls, his soft brown eyes lighting up. "He had won the Munich World Championship two years ago, and I was sure he would win again."
And thus began his road to Beijing, bolstered by support from the Israeli Olympic Committee, littered with empty casings and full of intense concentration. Simkovitch, who is admittedly "a little nervous" about the upcoming tournament, spends every day at the National Olympic Ranges in Herzliya, practicing by shooting one or two sessions a day.
"It's not so much physically, but very mentally demanding," he explains.
Part of this anxiety comes from the conditions he knows will exist in Beijing. "I'm concerned about the smog," he reveals. "It's difficult to hold your breath [a tactic he employs] when the air is congested." Plus, he expects the heat to be a factor, making it hard to focus and increasing his pulse even more. All of these components have led him to incorporate other aspects beside shooting into his training regimen.
Simkovitch's affinity for mechanics and minute details is ideally suited for the technical sport; he enjoys customizing his rifle "to an insane level," trying to tweak the nuts and bolts, as well as his hold on the rifle and his positioning, to get the best shot. He had even considered a career in engineering, taking classes in mechanical engineering at Tel Aviv University. When he realized how frequently he was skipping class to go to the shooting range, he left school to pursue shooting full-time.
It is a career choice that fits the slim, steady man well. While some would think of a sport involving rifles and ammunition as aggressive, even violent, for Simkovitch it is an exercise in Zen-like tranquility. He enjoys the peace when he is shooting, calling it "a meditative experience." Since his rifle, a 1913 Anschutz, is ultra-sensitive to the extent that his pulse beating against the barrel shifts the aim, he must be patient and sufficiently aware of his body to time his shots between heartbeats.
"It's hard at competitions, when your heart is racing from excitement," he says. "It's a conflict in shooting, because there is pressure to shoot well, which makes it harder. It's easy to shoot a 10 [a perfect score] when you're indifferent, but you can't be indifferent."
He therefore engages in a constant dance to achieve equilibrium. "If you try too hard, you will eventually fail," he says. "You have to find a balance. This sport is very much about balance."
Simkovitch must also blend the mental components with the athleticism shooting demands. To help disperse the pressure and weight of a seven kilo rifle, he wears special gloves and a jacket fitted with elbow and shoulder padding, and back support for standing shots. When shooting prone, he uses a sling to carry the rifle, and always wears boot-like shoes with flat soles and a flattened toe to keep him stable. In place of his usual eyeglasses, he sports a special shooting lens equipped with a blinder so that he does not have to close his non-aiming eye, thereby avoiding any unnecessary muscles working.
"It sounds small, but every little bit helps," he maintains.
All of these little bits add up to a lot of experience, which this veteran shooter credits for his success. Simkovitch began shooting when he was 16, after his junior high school took his class to a shooting range for a day. He immediately joined a club in Kfar Saba run by soldiers and was taken under current coach Starik's wing; he progressed quickly, and went on to win the Junior Championship in 2001, at 19.
One could easily assume that a shooter with his credentials would slide easily into a traditional, if not accelerated, military track. But Simkovitch is hardly one to opt for a traditional path. He accepted the IDF's offer of "sportsman's status," which allowed to him to practice shooting rather than engage in traditional service for the majority of his time.
"I was trained as a marksman, but I probably would have gone to sniper training had it not been for the special status," he says. "They asked me to be a shooting instructor, but when I got to the base to train, they told me I wasn't needed. I still feel I did my part."
Simkovitch recommends that any teens who may want to join an elite combat unit should join shooting clubs before their draft.
For Simkovitch, however, shooting is more than just a profession or a skill. He loves every day he spends at the range, even when frustration racks his nerves. He finds pleasure in some different aspects of the sport, including critiquing it.
"I've only seen one [James] Bond who could hold a gun," he says with a laugh, referring to one-time 007 portrayer George Lazenby. "He was a terrible Bond, but at least he knew how to hold a rifle. No one can hold two Uzis, shooting from the hip, and hit anything intentionally. That's just ridiculous."
Perhaps Simkovitch will find his shooting expertise used for a different aim in the future, but for now, only the Olympics are in his sights.