PENINSULA WOMAN: She’s taking love of shooting to 2016 Olympics

PORT ANGELES — Jaiden Grinnell, 19, likes the way her father describes her life.

Good-naturedly, Kurt Grinnell recently told her: “You’re doing things backwards. You’re traveling now; you can finish school later.”

Fresh from a trip to Concepcion, Chile, for the International Shooting Sports Federation’s 2011 World Cup — where she won the bronze medal — Jaiden Grinnell took a quick vacation to her hometown last week and spent part of an afternoon with a reporter.

An international-class skeet shooter for a good five years now — she’s a veteran of competitions in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 2006, Munich, Germany, in 2009 and Beijing in 2010 besides Chile this March — Grinnell is accustomed to interviews. She could probably lip-synch a lot of the questions journalists ask.

When asked how growing up in Port Angeles shaped her, Grinnell credits her family: not just two parents, but four, for giving her a rock-solid foundation.

From the beginning, her dad and her mother, Michele Hayman, believed in her.

“They always encouraged me to finish what I start, to keep going,” Grinnell says. That attitude has seen her through plenty in the past few years.

She smiles at the memory of growing up in a rural place, with lots of adults watching over her: her stepmother, Terri Grinnell, and her stepfather, Doug Hayman, were there at her school events; all four parents sat together so she always knew where her whole family would be.

Grinnell, who graduated from Port Angeles High School last June, has loved to shoot ever since she was in elementary school, when her father brought her and her older sister, Loni, to Sunnydell Shooting Grounds west of Sequim to try it out.

“If you get good grades, I’ll take you for shooting lessons,” with Sunnydell owner Chuck Dryke, Grinnell’s dad told her. “That was motivation enough for a 4.0,” she recalls.

That was when she was in sixth grade.

She progressed fast, training with Matt Dryke, Chuck’s son and the U.S. Olympic Team’s skeet-shooting gold medalist in the 1984 Summer Games. Grinnell landed a spot on the U.S. National Development Team and the Junior World Cup Team in 2006 at age 14.

At 17, she got ready to leave home and move to Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Grinnell hopes to qualify for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro; meantime, she wanted to compete in other global-class matches including the 2009 World Cup in San Marino.

That trip was not to be, as Grinnell found herself awakening each morning with intense nausea.

Her resting heart rate soared to 110 beats per minute — normal is 60 to 80 — while her body trembled.

She hadn’t known Graves disease, an autoimmune condition that wreaks havoc via the thyroid, ran in her family. After her diagnosis in June 2009, Grinnell stepped onto a rollercoaster, seeking the hormone dosage that would bring her system back into balance.

Her doctors could have put her on beta-blockers. The drugs would “slow my heart rate until it was nice and steady,” Grinnell says. And that would certainly be an advantage in her sport.

But they were not and are not an option; beta-blockers, like other performance-enhancing drugs, are banned by the International Olympic Committee.

Because she knew she would have to continue hormone medications for the rest of her life regardless — and potentially contend with extreme mood swings due to her thyroid malfunction — Grinnell opted to have her thyroid removed in December 2009. She now takes medication to replace the hormones the organ would have provided had it been healthy.

“I was lucky,” she says. “Everything went as planned” at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

After surgery and recovery, Grinnell returned to competition and proceeded to win a bronze medal, two silvers and a team gold in 2010’s National Championship, National Olympic Junior Championship and Junior World Championship skeet-shooting matches.

But “it was really hard to go through that,” she says of the drastic hormonal swings, the adjustments of medications and the operation’s aftermath. “It’s been a never-ending process of trial and error” and of doctor after doctor.

“It was a mental and emotional strain I’m still recovering from,” Grinnell adds. “But it made me stronger mentally. Now, no matter what is happening, I know it could be worse.”

Today, Grinnell is the picture of health. Her skin glows, her eyes are bright and she’s still feeling the thrill of medaling in Chile — where she made it to a World Cup final round for the first time.

“I don’t know how to describe the feeling, when your flag’s being raised,” Grinnell says. Bronze around her neck, she stood on the podium beside silver medal winner Wei Ning and gold medalist Zhang Shan, two of China’s top women.

“China is a powerhouse” in skeet shooting, “but so is the U.S.,” she says. Representing her country at the international contest, she says, was one of the proudest moments of her life.

And though she’s still about three months shy of her 20th birthday, Grinnell possesses a calm confidence that belies her youth.

“I’m becoming a lot more in tune with myself,” she says. When she feels her heart pounding too fast, she can manage it with deep breathing and inner dialogue.

“It’s a complete mental game. We compare it a lot to golf; it’s a louder version of golf,” Grinnell says, smiling again.

Skeet shooting, like so many things in life, is about “how well you can control yourself and your mind.”

Contrary to the stereotypes about young female Olympic-class athletes, Grinnell is not a machine programmed by her coaches. She practices a lot, but not so much that she tires herself out between matches.

“You’ve got to love your sport. If you don’t, it will show in your performance,” she says. “I’ll go as far as shooting will take me.”

Though Grinnell’s main focus now is on training and competition, she has additional ideas for her future. She’s taking online courses from Pikes Peak Community College and planning to work toward a degree in veterinary medicine, starting as a vet technician and eventually earning a doctorate.

Grinnell knows, however, that she’ll never hang up her gun, even if shooting becomes purely recreational.

When she was a girl, she met a man seven times her age who was still skeet-shooting.

“You can shoot from a wheelchair. You can shoot with a broken leg — if you’re careful. It’s a sport for all ages and body types.”

Recently, Grinnell’s mother expressed concern about her putting up her own page on Facebook. Mom was worried about people being able to find too much information about her daughter; Grinnell reminded her that already, people can learn all about “one of the youngest members of the National Shotgun Team” by going to USAShooting.com or a number of other sites.

Grinnell is used to people following her activities.

Spending her childhood in Port Angeles, the daughter of prominent parents — her father, Kurt, has long served on the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council among other posts, and her mother is health and wellness director at the Olympic Peninsula YMCA — she knew her folks had lots of friends keeping an eye on her.

“I rode my scooter down this street without a helmet one day,” she says, referring to Front Street. “My mom knew about it before I got home.”

Yet there are still those who see her small frame and long blond hair and assume she’s a lightweight who uses something light like a 20-gauge shotgun.

These skeptics would be men, and they would be wrong. Grinnell shoots with an 8.5-pound, 12-gauge Krieghoff K-80. The first match she shot with it was that one in Chile.

“I can swing a 12-gauge with the guys,” she says.

And when it’s time to compete, she can home in on the target, be it the one flying across the sky or that still place inside.

Grinnell sums up her attitude like this: “OK, this is it. I’m going to lay all my cards on the table, and let’s go.”

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