When sharp shooting Natalie Rooney opened the door for an unprecedented New Zealand medal haul at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, few truly understood the motivation fuelling the South Canterbury markswoman.
Four years earlier, the Timaru-based athlete had been left “devastated” after she was controversially omitted from the London 2012 Olympic team.
Selected to compete, Natalie was all set to make her Olympic debut until rifle shooter Ryan Taylor successfully appealed his non-selection and replaced her on the team.
With her mum battling terminal breast cancer at the time, it was a decision which was “extremely hard to take”.
“I was gutted by what happened,” explains Natalie. “One of the main reasons was it meant my mother would never see me compete at an Olympics. It definitely drove me to want to achieve it so much more.”
Natalie’s mum Adrienne died aged 55 in 2013, but her memories of a woman who played a hugely influential role in her life live on.
“She was incredible,” Natalie says. “She always encouraged me, just like my father, to do whatever I wanted to do. Before she got sick, she would follow me everywhere to my shooting events. She was my number one supporter. My water girl.”
First diagnosed with cancer after Natalie came home from the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, Adrienne shared a special bond and a similar personality with her daughter.
“She was always so nice and lovely to everyone,” says Natalie. “Everybody loved her.”
Winning silver in Rio in a shoot-off for the gold medal against Australia’s Catherine Skinner was a richly deserved moment for Natalie, who first picked up a shotgun aged 14.
Dragged along to watch her brother Sam (now aged 31) compete in clay target shooting at the National Secondary Schools’ Championships, Natalie was encouraged to give it a go.
After hitting three of her first five targets, the Craighead Diocesan student was hooked and made quick progress.
Within four years, Natalie represented her country at the 2007 Sydney Youth Olympic Festival in Australia. Three years later, she placed fifth in the women’s trap event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
“I started falling in love with shooting and wanted to achieve more,” says Natalie. “My brothers [she also has two younger brothers, Cameron, 26, and William, 22] and Dad are all competitive, and we go out and shoot on a weekend, which is extra motivation."I like that shooting is a sport with no limits – anyone of any age can do it.”
There is also little doubting who’s boss of the shooting range in family competitions.
“Oh, yes, I get the better of them,” she adds with a smile. “Especially in Olympic events.”
A turning point in Natalie’s career came when she placed fourth in the women’s trap event at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Devastated to narrowly miss a medal, she returned to training with greater focus.
Dividing her time between the shooting range in the back garden of their family home and spending lengthy periods of the New Zealand winter training in Europe with her Italian coach Andrea Miotto, helped prepare her for her Olympic challenge in Rio.
“My consistency is better than ever,” she says. “My movements have improved, and I’m more aware of what I’m doing and how I’m shooting. I’ve improved my mental state too by working with a sport psychologist.”
Competing in a nerve-shredding sport which demands composure and a steady hand, how does Natalie control nerves?
“It definitely comes with my experience,” she explains. “I do suffer nerves but sometimes a little bit of adrenaline helps and sometimes you can’t fight it, you just have to work through it.”
When in New Zealand, she works full-time for her father’s earthmoving business and also likes to play defence for the local Harlequins netball team in her native Timaru.
In her down time, the qualified accountant loves nothing more than to catch up with friends, and likes to relax shopping for clothes and shoes.
Yet her main focus remains shooting, where she hopes to strike gold at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
For the moment, however, she is happy to bask in the glow of her brilliant silver medal success in Rio.
“It has been a long time coming,” she says. “I’ve had a few setbacks in my career. I’m just so happy to put in a good display of shooting on the day.
“My mum would have been so proud. She’s definitely in my thoughts every day. I always feel she’s there supporting me. I know that she was smiling down on me when I was on the medal podium, that’s for sure.”
Words: Steve Landells