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Feeding Hills resident shoots for world championship

Date: 10/6/2009

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM -- Practical shooting is no easy task. This sport takes practice, precision and respect for the tool that harbors many negative stereotypes -- a firearm.

Feeding Hills resident Chris Szczygiel's dedication to the sport served him well, as he won his classification in the Limited Division at the Smith & Wesson 2009 United States Practical Shooting Association's (USPSA) National Handgun Championships in Las Vegas last month.

"There's nothing to be terrified of -- as a sports shooter, a firearm is just a tool," he told Reminder Publications, adding that the sport is very challenging. "It's kinda like playing golf because there's no finish line -- you can always become better."

Szczygiel developed a knack for practical shooting when he bought his first pellet gun at age 10. He has since gone on to compete at the national level for the past six years with over 600 of the country's top shooters.

"It was a very successful match and we filled them to capacity," Dave Thomas, executive director of the USPSA, said of this year's nationals. "The sport is growing. I think the word is getting out and people are trying it [and wanting to compete]."

Thomas explained that many of the negative stereotypes surrounding guns are a byproduct of fear. "The fear is primarily of the unknown," he added.

Thomas noted that strictly enforced safety standards are what keep competitors our of harm's way, while abating fear.

"You drive to work everyday and the machinery that you operate when you drive has more lethal capacity than any gun ever built," he said. "A firearm is a tool just like a hammer or a car. The only part of the gun that can hurt you is the hole [at the end]. We have zero tolerance in this sport for safety violation."

Thomas noted that practical shooting is an extremely competitive sport, which takes dedication and practice to achieve the classification of master or grand master.

Szczygiel, classified as a B shooter -- the tier below grandmaster, master and A classification but above C, D and unclassified -- and posted the highest score in his class of 66 B shooters at this year's nationals.

"He did so well and it was beautiful to watch," Judith Lafreniere of Feeding Hills, also a participant in this year's USPSA nationals, said. "When you go to nationals it's a whole different [level of] competition because the top of the category go there [to compete]."

Lafreniere noted that this was not her best national competition to date but she views it as a "learning experience." She attributed her weaker performance to new equipment and competing in a new division.

"I didn't expect anything great there," Lafreniere said of the 2009 nationals. "What's nice about shooting is that each time you go out, you learn something about yourself, and about shooting [even] when you have a disastrous day."

She noted that prior to being exposed to the sport of practical shooting in her 40s she "didn't want anything to do with guns."

"I was terrified of guns," Lafreniere said. She added that learning safety procedures and proper gun use eased her fears and led her to gain a true appreciation for the sport.

Lafreniere has competed at nationals for the past several years, in addition to competing in the 2005 International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) World Championships in Ecuador.

Lafreniere said she plans to compete with Szczygiel at future nationals and in the next IPSC World Championships in Greece in 2011.