Olympic shooter Aaron Heading – Clay Shooting interview

Aaron Heading talks to Jasper Fellows about the Olympic delay, The Priory and the hidden benefits of lockdown.

In 24 March Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, released a joint statement. For the first time since World War Two, the Olympics would be delayed.

For sports fans across the globe this came as unfortunate yet understandable news. But what about the athletes? Those who have spent their entire lives dreaming of representing their country on the world’s greatest stage? 

Trap superstar Aaron Heading is one of those athletes. Throughout his career Aaron has amassed a wealth of European Championship, World Championship and Commonwealth Games medals, including two gold medals from the 2010 and 2017 Games in Delhi and The Gold Coast respectively. However Tokyo 2020 was set to be his first Olympics.

“I got into Team GB by the skin of my teeth,” explains Aaron. “I had narrowly missed out on securing a quota place at a number of events throughout 2019, my last chance was at the European Championships in Lonato, Italy.”

“I shot well enough throughout the competition and made my way through to the final, but I missed my final target, I was devastated. I was crying thinking I had let this final chance slip through my fingers, when I realised I had knocked out the Italian, Mauro De Filippis, to take silver and an Olympic quota place! My glasses steamed up as I looked over to my wife, Natasha who was screaming for joy in the crowd. Thank God I’d done it. I’d been trying for over 20 years to secure a quota place – and at last I’d finally done it.”

Aaron was set to compete at his first Olympics this year

However, as 2019 turned into 2020 and the threat of Covid-19 grew, rumours started to circulate that the Olympics may be delayed or even cancelled. “Like everyone else I was glued to TV,” says Aaron, “wondering how we could possibly travel to Tokyo when the whole world is in a state of medical emergency.”

Despite global concern, the IOC insisted that everything would continue as planned. Even releasing an official statement as late as 17 March saying, “The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” and that there was “no need for any drastic decisions at this stage.” 

Aaron continues, “At this point Natasha and I had already made the very tough decision that she would not come out to Japan to watch me compete. We have a very young child and we knew, deep down, that traveling was simply not worth the risk to him, particularly to Asia, which had been hit hard by the virus.

“Knowing I would not have my greatest fans sitting in the crowd, cheering me on, cast a dark shadow over an event that I have been dreaming of since I was a young boy.”

Despite knowing that he wouldn’t be able to bring his family with him to Japan, Aaron and his teammates continued to train for the upcoming Games. “As athletes we were told to carry on as normal,” he explains. “I was told that there was no way an Olympics would ever be moved, and that Tokyo was no exception.

“We were to keep training, as come July we would be off. It’s my understanding that even British Shooting, the governing body who oversee the development and preparations of Team GB’s shooters, were not made aware of any delay until they heard the news from the BBC.”

“There was no forewarning to any of the athletes or the Olympic organisation that I am aware of. Once the IOC’s Press Conference hit our screens on 24 March, everything ground to a sudden stop.

“As soon as the conference ended, my phone was exploding as everyone started to scramble for information, trying to put together the pieces and figure out a plan. We had all seen this delay coming, but we had remained hopeful that everything would be ok and the Olympics would still go ahead as planned.

“The news was tough to take. Of course I believe it was the right thing to do, there is no way I would be willing to risk my family’s health, nor the health of anyone else. Having another year allows me more time to prove myself to the Olympic selectors, to show that I am worthy to represent Great Britain.

“But, on the flipside, I knew I had another year’s worth of anxiety and anticipation to deal with. I knew it would be difficult to find a way back into the same headspace and technical rhythm I was in prior to the pandemic.”

Thankfully, British Shooting take a keen interest in the mental health of their athletes – understanding that an athlete’s mental fitness is just as important as their physical fitness.

“British Shooting have been great at making sure that all of its athletes are staying in a good frame of mind,” says Aaron. “They’ve been in contact every week and I’m always chatting with my coach, Chris Dean.

Aaron had been prepared to travel to Asia alone before the Olympics were delayed

“They know the situation is tough on us all mentally and they know it will be hard to get back into the swing of things when we are able to start training again. I really feel like they are committed to us as athletes, which, in turn, makes us want to fully commit to them.

“We hold team meetings by Skype every fortnight as well, just to check in with each other. I’m very close to my teammates, so we are always chatting on WhatsApp, always making sure that everyone’s staying safe and not feeling too isolated.

“It’s important to have people you can talk to. I think it’s fair to say my teammates have a similar outlook to me regarding the current situation – disappointment, tempered with an understanding of the situation and keenness to get back at the clays again.”

Aside from his Olympic aspirations and his young family, Aaron also has The Priory Clay Target Centre to worry about. “The day we had to shut The Priory was the day I knew the virus really meant business. It was so hard to shut everything down, not knowing how long it would be until we would be able to open our doors again.

The Priory had been off to a flying start this year and we had lots of really great regional and county championships lined up. We were really looking forward to showing the clay shooting community how dedicated we are to the sport. Unfortunately, many of these have been cancelled, which is a real shame.

“I’m mindful of the lockdown rules and I think it’s very important to respect the local town – so I haven’t even been able to train on the grounds myself. But, as The Priory is only a mile from my house, I have been able to walk up there for my daily exercise and we’ve been hard at work doing what we can while the doors are shut to visitors. 

“We’ve installed a new kitchen and a new log burner, built new seating and covered our most popular DTL layout for all-weather shooting once we are able to re-open again. The next job is to start on shelters for the rest of our DTL, ABT and Double Rise layouts. Being shut is obviously bad for business, but at least it gives us time for some renovations.”

Aaron is no stranger to the podium, but the Olympic Games had always eluded him

For Aaron, having the time to update and improve his shooting centre hasn’t been the only benefit he’s discovered of being under the lockdown. “With the Olympics, alongside a host of other international competitions set to take place in 2020, I knew it was going to be a tough year for my family.

“My son has just turned one and there are so many milestones that I was worried I would miss. Thanks to my schedule suddenly clearing up, I’ve been able to spend much more time with him. I’ve been able to watch him learn new things and even take his first steps, so I’m grateful for that.

“I can’t see Tokyo being postponed for a second time,” concludes Aaron. “And I’m hopeful that the world will get a grip on the virus and that we’ll all be safer and better protected in the coming months. There is light at the end of the tunnel and we will all be back on the ranges soon enough.

“The Priory team can’t wait to welcome everyone back and I can’t wait to live out my childhood dream of becoming an Olympian with my greatest supporters, my family, cheering me on from the sidelines at Tokyo 2021.”

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