Taking aim for Tokyo
It takes determination, effort and talent to make it to the pinnacle of any sport – something clay pigeon shooter Aaron Heading knows only too well after climbing to the top of the rankings in the Olympic trap discipline.
The 31-year-old from Long Sutton, was 9 when he first picked up a gun and since qualifying for Team GB just three years later, he has gone on to win numerous medals on the domestic and international scene, including gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Earlier this year Aaron added Commonwealth silver to his medal haul after competing in the Australian games, while in June he won gold in the men’s trap final during the fifth stage of the 2018 ISSF World Cup Series in Malta. Now his sights are firmly set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
He’s also working to get more people involved in the sport, especially youngsters who he helps coach at The Priory Clay Target Centre, in Sutton Bridge, which he took over with wife Natasha in 2015.
“My dad John and older brother Martin were both keen shooters and used to go everywhere, it was a hobby and they also competed,” recalls Aaron. “I was always the kid carrying their cartridges. Then, one day Dad asked me if I’d like to have a go and I jumped at the chance. From that moment I was hooked; I never looked back – it was just brilliant.
“Thanks to shooting I’ve been lucky; I’ve seen so much of the world, I’ve had some wonderful experiences and met lots of great people.
“As a sport, I think shooting is underestimated; it’s very technical and mostly mental. It’s also an endurance sport – made up of little sprints, with qualification spread over two days before the final.
“It’s not an easy event to get to the top of. There are a lot of talented people out there, I’ve had to work a lot harder than many others.”
Aaron qualified for the British team when he was 12 – making him one of the youngest juniors to do so. He’s been a firm fixture in the squad ever since, winning his first major medals in Delhi in 2010 when he claimed a bronze in the pairs trap and gold in the individual event.
“My first championships were a real eye-opener; I didn’t get any medals but it was a wonderful experience. A few years later I won a World Championships team gold, which was absolutely phenomenal and that inspired me to push on further,” he says.
“But competing at the Commonwealth Games was like being part of another world – I was just in awe. I’d been watching all these other sportsmen and then, when it came to my event, I just remember thinking ‘well, I’d better try and do something good now’.
“I had no expectation to get a medal, although I knew I was shooting well. I partnered David Kirk and we held the championship record for six minutes.
“He shot a 95 and I got 99, but then the Indian team came out and smashed that, then four minutes later the Australians beat their scores.
“To come away with bronze was amazing and then, when it came to my individual performance I knew I was in with a big chance. I didn’t ring home, I was really nervous and knew I could do something and I just had it in my head that on the next call home I wanted to be telling them I had done it.
“It took everything I had – I had to beat Australian double Olympic champion Michael Diamond – but I got the gold and that really put me on the map.”
Building on his success, Aaron, who is coached by Chris Dean, won bronze the following year at the World Cup in Slovenia. With London 2012 looming he was hopeful of securing a place in Team GB, but had his hopes dashed at the last when the selectors chose someone else.
Devastated by the decision, Aaron admits he had to force himself to pick up his gun again, but thankfully he did, reaffirming his place at the top by beating Italian Giovanni Pellielo at the World Cup in UAE.
“The medal I won in 2010 will always hold a special place in my heart, but to come out again three years later, after the disappointment of 2012; well this one just made me realise I could do it,” he adds.
Aaron’s impressive form continued with more medals at home and abroad, including silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Sadly his hopes of competing on the Olympic stage in Rio 2016 were dashed again after he was involved in a horrific motorbike accident. Aaron suffered three broken ribs and a serious leg injury and was told he would need a year of rehab before he would shoot again.
Determined not to be beaten, he threw himself into his recovery and made it to the next World Champs the following February in Mexico, where he missed out on a place in the final by one target.
“It was tough; I was there or thereabouts and still couldn’t qualify for Rio. But looking back, the whole experience definitely made me stronger. I learnt a lot about myself and my body, more so than at any other time,” says Aaron, who is sponsored by gunmaker Beretta and Fiocchi ammunition.
“The Australian Commonwealth Games were my next big championships; I’d had three medals from two games so there was a bit of pressure there.
“And they couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. I fell ill, with cold and flu like symptoms. The shooting team wasn’t staying with the other athletes; we were with the English cycling team and I couldn’t risk contaminating them, so had to stay in my room for five days.
“I’d gone to the other side of the world and instead of heading off to watch the sports I was in my room watching Netflix, unable to get out there and practice.”
Thankfully Aaron recovered in time and made it to the final where he lost out to Welsh shooter Michael Wixey.
As for the future, Aaron, whose training schedule includes shooting up to six days a week alongside strength and conditioning work, is aiming for Tokyo and concentrating on building his business.
The Priory ground has historically been shot on since the war when it was originally RAF Sutton Bridge, the central gunnery school for the British army.
Since taking the venue on, the Headings have revamped the site which has three down-the-line and three skeet ranges, two automatic ball trap ranges, a grouse butt range and a 140-feet sporting tower.
There’s also a clubhouse serving refreshments and opportunities for coaching with Aaron himself.
“The range is my workplace, but it’s also my retreat and it provides a bit of normality,” says Aaron, who receives support and funding from British Shooting and the National Lottery.
“I get to coach and help juniors develop to become contenders and get people involved in the sport. It’s somewhere I get to combine everything I love, but it’s not for me, we have GB athletes train here and it’s a place for the community too.
“As for the future, I’m focusing on Tokyo and as for the rest, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
To find out more about The Priory Clay Target Centre, at Sutton Bridge, visit www.theprioryctc.co.uk