In celebration of Andy Womble’s gold medal at the FITAV Para Clay Target Grand Prix in Italy last week, we dug into the archive to when the champion made his decision to return to the sport in 2013, following his recovery from a horrific accident.
Andrew Womble was a name on the lips of many Trap shooters and clay shooting fans in the 1980s. One of the top Juniors in the country, Andrew qualified for the England team in DTL when he was just 15 years old and shot 11 100/300s while in this category.
Growing up in Clowne, a village near Chesterfield in Nottingham, Andrew explains how it was the perfect setting to begin his shooting career: “I started shooting with an air rifle when I was seven, and my dad decided to get a shotgun when I was 12 and my brother, Julian, was 10. We went to the local farm and started shooting there. The farmer had a Skeet house and layout set up, which is where we practised. From there, we started going to Stilehollow Shooting Ground, near Mansfield, and Nottingham and District Gun Club.
“I was 14 when I got my own gun: a Vostock MU8. Julian and I improved steadily and started shooting some of the local competitions. When we started winning things, people said things like, “You’re good at this” and we started to believe them.”
Soaring through competitions with success after success, Andrew qualified for the England Down the Line team when he was 15. He adds, “Between the ages of 15 and 18, I won pretty much everything that could be won in the Junior category. I shot 11 100/300s and more than 100 100-straights while I was still a Junior, and won the Dougall Memorial trophy in 1989.” In February that year, Garth, Andrew and Julian’s father, passed away, and the boys struggled to retain their love of Down the Line: “Because my dad had died, my brother and I decided to switch over to Olympic Trap. There were too many reminders of our dad in DTL, so we changed disciplines and that’s how we got into shooting OT.
“We started doing well in Olympic Trap as well, winning several medals like the European team medal for Juniors. Beretta and Gunmark looked after us, and we were also supported by Express.” Just as Andrew’s shooting career was reaching its peak, his life changed dramatically: “I achieved the minimum qualifying score for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, but in 1990 I was involved in a car accident. I smashed everything, and was paralysed from the top of my head to my toes. My right-hand side wouldn’t work, though my left side did. I got brain damage and I damaged my right eye.
“I gradually got better, but because my right eye didn’t work my left eye came across to give me central vision. I had four operations, two on each eye, to re-align them. I got back into weight training and boxing, but I couldn’t return to shooting because I kept getting double vision.
“Julian was number two in England and Great Britain (he was always behind me), but when I had my accident in 1990 he became top Junior Trap shooter. He went to Australia in 1991 for the World Shotgun Championship and became a double world champion, taking gold in Double Trap and Olympic Trap.”
Between 1990 and 2000, Andrew started working again and began weight training and boxing, but he regularly had trouble breathing. Doctors believed this to be a lingering effect of the car accident until, in 2000, Andrew was rushed into hospital again. It was revealed that, in the car accident, Andrew’s diaphragm had been damaged. Over the years, his stomach had moved through the diaphragm into the chest cavity, putting pressure on his lungs. While trying to improve his breathing, the doctors caused Andrew’s body even more damage, bursting his lungs and stomach while trying to insert chest drains. Andrew spent a long 14 months in hospital: “I’ve since found out that I’m the first person in medical history who survived what happened. I almost died six times while I was in hospital – I did die once and they brought me back. People say that I had it rough, but it was my mum and younger brother who had it worse, they had to sit there with me.”
Despite all this, Andrew and his family remained strong and came through these tough years. Things began to look up last year when he went to a friend’s house: “He showed me his shotgun and I picked it up. Looking down the barrels, I realised I could see clearly down it. Over the years, my eyes had moved and I could see properly with both eyes open. It was my eyesight that kept me out of shooting for so long. Physically, I repaired all right, though I’ve still got bad lungs. But regarding shooting, it was my eyes that held me back. My left eye had come really close to my nose so I couldn’t see anything, but over the 20 years they began to settle down.
“I’d sold my guns years before, so I contacted Keith Shields of Disabled Clay Target Shooting GB (DCTSGB) and he invited me down for a few shots. We had a chat and he asked if I’d like to help with DCTSGB. That was in July 2012, and now I’m on the board of DCTSGB. I help ex-forces personnel and anyone who’s disabled to learn to shoot. I was teaching for a while, but then became ill again over Christmas and didn’t shoot between September and March this year. When I got better again I bought a Beretta DT10. It didn’t fit me properly, so I tried a Caesar Guerini Summit with a high rib and an adjustable stock, but the trouble is that guns don’t fit me right since my accident. Recently, I went back to Beretta and purchased another DT10 with 32in barrels, which I’m getting on well with so far.
“As I’m unable to work because of my disability, I can’t afford to shot clays all the time. I bought a DryFire setup and it’s done me the world of good. I’d recommend it to anyone who does a lot of shooting. It’s a unit with two heads on which shoot red laser beams onto a wall. You shoot at the dots with an infrared laser that sits in the end of your barrel. As I’m not well, it gives me a chance to just pick the gun up and shoot without going anywhere.”
“It felt marvellous to be shooting again. It didn’t feel how I remembered it. Being able to shoot meant so much more”
Now, Andrew is grateful for his family’s continued support: “Julian and my family inspired me to get back into shooting. I was poorly all the time and miserable. Julian asked me when I could last remember being happy. After spending time with my girls, I was happiest when shooting.’
“He took me shooting earlier this year at Nuthampstead Shooting Ground and people couldn’t believe that I was back and shooting again – they wonder where I’ve been for all these years. It felt marvellous to be shooting again. It didn’t feel how I remembered it. Being able to shoot meant so much more.”
It wasn’t only Andrew who was pleased with his return to the clay ground. Joe Neville, the first man to shoot 200-straight at Olympic Skeet, was eager to say hello. Andrew recalls: “He came into the clubhouse and shook my hand, saying, ‘Andy Womble, I’ve been looking for you for 20 minutes. I saw your name on the scoreboard.’ It was great when he recognised Jue and I.
“I’ve been shooting for about three months, and the other week I shot 100/300 in a practice round. It can only get better. I mainly shoot at Nottingham & District Gun Club or Beverley Clay Target Centre, if I’m practising Olympic Trap or Down the Line. I’ve also been shooting with Joe Neville’s daughter, Caroline Povey, who’s in the England team. She’s a great shot, a lovely person, and has access to a layout. When I first shot with her, she said, ‘I can’t believe I’m shooting with you – you and your brother were the kings of Trap shooting.’ I didn’t know people thought like that, it’s really humbling that people still remember me.”
Since returning to shooting, Andrew’s performance has gone from strength to strength: “I shot the National Disabled Olympic Trap Championship and GB selection shoot for the disabled at Nuthampstead Shooting Ground in June and came second in disabled class, then I shot the British Universal Trench Grand Prix at Nuthampstead Shooting Ground on 28 July and came second again. I also scored 97/285 to win AA-class in a DTL shoot at Nottingham & District Gun Club on 9 June. I’ve been shooting an average of 22-23 in Olympic Trap, and have just made it into the Nottingham Automatic Ball Trap team.”
Though clay shooting is no longer Julian’s main focus, he continues to shoot alongside Andrew and gives him his full support: “Julian has said I’ll be the best disabled shooter that this country’s had, but I don’t want to be the best disabled shooter, I want to be the best shooter. My plan is to focus on Olympic Trap. I’ll shoot Down the Line, and pretty much everything that’s going, but I do love Olympic Trap. A friend said to me, ‘There’s a lot of good shooters out there, but they forget how good you were.’ The problem is that my equipment is all 25 years old, and, as I am four stone lighter, nothing fits. I’m hoping to find a sponsor now so that I can really focus on my shooting.”
Andrew’s ambitions are high yet his determination is clear, and he is also eager to promote the work of Disabled Clay Target Shooting GB. He adds: “DCTSGB is opening its own clay ground. Stilehollow Shooting Ground in Nottinghamshire is becoming a school for teaching disabled people to shoot. It’ll be opening later this year, and we’re also trying to get disabled clay shooting into the Paralympics and other big shooting competitions.
“I am keen to thank my family and friends, the doctors and hospital staff at Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, and everyone else who has been involved with my recovery for their continued support.”