Fortitude and Grace

Feb 22, 2019

Cleared to travel the day before by her doctors, Emily Ferguson hugs her mom at Nationals in July 2018 after setting a personal best of 195/200 and a new school record.
Cleared to travel the day before by her doctors, Emily Ferguson hugs her mom at Nationals in July 2018 after setting a personal best of 195/200 and a new school record.

Despite a battle with cancer that took her eye, 17-year-old Emily Ferguson is breaking shooting sports records and mentoring others.

With the concentration uncharacteristic of a young and vibrant 17-year-old girl, Emily Ferguson moves between the posts at Nashville Gun Club’s International Trap Bunker. Each time, she takes measured five-and-a-half steps with her head down, loading her Beretta 692 before gently rocking into and finding her stance. She closes the action, raises her shotgun, calls for the target, shoots, and empties her shells. Then, she starts again.

She shoots a full round, never breaking focus.

When she finishes, she looks up with a smile. It’s been a long time, and Emily is happy to be back on the field.

Watching this skilled athlete—only two years new to the sport—it is hard to believe she’s so unpracticed. After all, during her second season, Emily qualified for the Junior Olympics in International trap and finished with a 195/200 at the National Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP) Championships in American trap. She’s caught the attention of many.

But Emily Ferguson is even more remarkable than that.

Already a Champion

This young athlete had already established herself as a champion. At just 18 months of age, Emily was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that most often affects children. In the battle, Emily lost her right eye—a fact that makes her chuckle when she thinks of her first trap practices with St. Mary’s Episcopal School’s trap team.

“I’ll never forget the coaches asking if I knew which was my dominant eye. I said, ‘I think I’m left dominant.’ They asked, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because it’s the only eye I’ve got!’”

Since, Coaches Boyd Wade and Bill Quinlen have been known to brag on their “One-eye, one-eyed shooter,” a term of endearment Emily gladly accepts.

For Emily, her love of trap wasn’t planned. During an activity fair called Derby Day her freshman year, the St. Mary’s trap team’s booth stood out to her. On a whim, she signed up for the team thinking that her father would be thrilled. She was right. They instantly bonded over the sport. Emily smiles as she explains that her father took her out to the range for the first time.

“He says—I don’t remember this, but he’s adamant— that I hit my very first target,” said Emily.

And, it’s been up from there.

During her first season, Emily wasted no time making a name for herself. She participated in all tournaments and broke multiple records for her school, including being the first junior varsity female to hit 96/100 targets at the National SCTP Championships.

Successful in All Pursuits

That winter, her outgoing nature led her to go on her first hunt through the Federation’s Hunting and Fishing Academy.

“I remember hearing the rifle reports,” said Cameron Mitchell, eastern program manager. “As soon as we got settled in the field, we heard her first shot. Over the radio, we heard her Hunt Master say, ‘Buck down.’ Not long after, another shot. I called the Hunt Master and asked if she’d missed the first shot after all. He responded, ‘No, doe down.’ And not long after, a third shot for another doe. It was amazing.”

When she returned to camp, Emily had an impressive four deer for the weekend. Three of which she donated to Hunters for the Hungry, another Federation program.

During her first season, Emily Ferguson broke multiple records for her school, including being the first JV female to hit 96 of 100 targets at Nationals.

That spring, her second Tennessee SCTP season was equally impressive. Emily arrived on the scene, this time with her reputation preceding her. She had goals to shoot 75 and 100 straight and hopes of making a strong competition showing.

In March of 2018, her private coach Jim Dickerson of USA Shooting encouraged her to try international trap, an Olympic sport, which would require her to travel from Memphis to Nashville or St. Louis to practice. She did it.

In fact, not only did Emily begin to practice international trap as family schedules would allow, but her skill was great enough to warrant a trip to Missouri to qualify for the Junior Olympics. The only athlete there with a single-barrel shotgun and just two months of exposure to the sport, Emily qualified handily.

Overcoming Setbacks

Unfortunately, Emily was back in the hospital the following day. After five years in remission, she was rediagnosed with cancer, for the third time in her young life.

After her battle as a toddler, Emily was diagnosed at age 11 with Ewing’s Sarcoma, another form of childhood cancer. She spent nine months during her fifth-grade year receiving inpatient treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. During that time, her third and fourth ribs were removed, and she received chemotherapy followed by daily radiation.

This cancer is unusual in that if it recurs, it tends to do so later than most. And so, on what should have been a day of celebration for this 17-year-old, the Ferguson family realized they were back on the battlefront. This time, the cancer had invaded Emily’s lung.

After setting a record at Regionals, the severity and timing of Emily’s treatment forced her to sit out for State and miss the Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs. Luckily, she’d registered enough targets to qualify for Nationals. But being allowed to make the trip depended on her white cell count—a number she wouldn’t get back until the exact day she’d need to hit the road.

As soon as she was cleared, Emily and her family headed to Ohio, arriving just in time for Emily’s first National SCTP Championships round. She scored 97/100. On the second day, Emily set a new school record, recording 98/100, for 195/200.

Emily returned home proud of her accomplishments but already setting goals for her next season. She’d really like to break 100 straight. And, it doesn’t sound like Emily is going to allow her cancer to slow her down.

Changing the Team Dynamic

While her treatment will dictate her school and practice schedule, Emily’s negotiated with her doctors to time treatments to ensure she can be as active as possible, to recruit new team members, and show up to the first practices—a desire that perfectly captures Emily’s character.

Her coach, Boyd Wade, brags of course about her accomplishments as an athlete. But, more remarkably, he credits her with changing the team dynamic.

“Emily is the first girl in 10 years that’s taken an interest in the younger kids. She already spent this past season mentoring freshmen—would have done it sooner, if she hadn’t been the youngest on the team. The younger girls want to be just like her.”

Boyde Wade, St. Mary’s Episcopal School’s Trap Team Coach

And it’s because of her spirit and humility that this past summer just before school started Emily and her family found themselves surrounded by an entire trap team, including team members who had already graduated and were ready to move on, being celebrated and supported. Because sometimes being the best means a lot more off the field than on.

Emily shared how Tennessee SCTP has given her confidence in the middle of her fight against cancer at the Tennessee Wildlife and Fish Commission meeting.

Feature photo by Christa Ferguson

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