For 19 years, Department of Washington Legionnaire Bud Sperry has been a part of The American Legion’s annual Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship, spending the past few years as match director.
And it doesn’t take Sperry, nicknamed “Uncle Fluffy” by the competition’s participants, long to come up with a reason for why he’s devoted so much time and so many years to the Legion’s Junior Shooting Sports Program (JSSP).
“It is all about the kids,” said Sperry, a member of Post 181 in Lake Stevens. “It’s their sport, and we’re here to make sure they have the best competition they’ve ever had. The kids are important because they’re our future leaders. It’s our responsibility to make sure they get the best training possible.”
For 25 years, the Legion has conducted its national championships. And for 25 years, American Legion Past National Commander Dave Rehbein has been a part of the tournament. His wife, Ann, has volunteered at the same event all but one of those years.
Rehbein said his dedication to the event comes from both what it does for the participants and what he gets from his experience
“There are very few things in life more rewarding than to see someone you’ve worked with become successful (and) meet a challenge,” PNC Rehbein said. “These young people … you understand you’re helping them becaome successful, and that’s going to last the rest of their lives.
“Plus, I think I take as much away from this as they do. Watching them, and seeing what they’ve become and knowing what they can become – I take away as much as they do.”
Sperry and the Rehbein’s are among several volunteers who have been coming to the JSSP national championship. Gerald Dieman, a member of James J. Shea Post 19, has been making the long trip from Willimantic, Conn., for 18 years. Those longtime volunteers have seen many technologial changes to the program. Targets used to have to be gathered and then manually counted by volunteers. Now, scoring is done electronically, and both those in attendance and those following online can watch real-time scoring for every round of the competition.
“When we started here, we got cardboard from refrigerator boxes and put targets on it,” Rehbein said. “We really started from Ground Zero. When we scored paper targets, we would be here an extra 30-45 minutes after all the shooting was done just to get the scoring done.”
Sperry said he never gets bored with the program. “Every year is different: the kids, the quality of the shooters,” he said. “You see these kids … grow up from sporter to precision. It’s phenomenal to watch them.”
Sperry has also seen former JSSP participants go onto bigger glory. Most recently, Jamie (Beyerle) Gray, the 2002 Legion national champion, won Olympic gold in London in 2012 after finishing fourth in 2008 in Beijing.
Olympic hopeful Lauren Phillips, a 2013 JSSP national championship participant and now a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, was back among Legion volunteers during the 2015 national championship. In addition to training in Colorado Springs, Phillips also is interning for USA Shooting.
Phillips has developed a great deal of admiration for the JSSP volunteers. “I want to be just like them when I’m older,” she said. “For somebody to stick with something longer than I’ve been alive is kind of admirable to me anyway. But since I was only here once … I never thought I’d be as close to them as I am. When they showed up on campus, they walked in and I was like, ‘Uncle Fluffy.’ He was like, ‘I’ll be damned.’ We just caught up, and it was almost like (no time had passed).”
Rehbein likes hearing stories like that. “When you come back and someone like Lauren is here – and she’s very happy to see us – that tells you what her experience was like in the match that she shot in,” he said. “But … The American Legion, in all of its youth programs, has been known as a very high-class, high-quality program, and that’s what we try to maintain here in Shooting Sports.
“That’s the standard that we want to live up to so that when the shooters go home, when the coaches and the parents all go home, they talk about a fun week it was, what a quality program it was. That’s the ideal that we strive for.”
Even though he’d gone through it 24 other times, Rehbein said anticipation still kicks in as the finals get under way. “It’s exciting from the standpoint of you’re not sure who’s going to perform at what level,” he said. “So it’s interesting to see how it shakes out. The person that comes into this match in first place (sometimes) doesn’t make the finals.
“You see people really stand up to the challenge. You see some other folks that maybe they don’t respond to the challenge quite so well. And some of those are the ones that you really want to spend a little time with and let them know, ‘Yeah, today wasn’t a very good day. But that doesn’t mean tomorrow’s bad. Now it’s the next challenge that comes along.’”