Sgt. Sagen Maddalena Is Headed Back To The Olympics, This Time In Air Rifle
by Scott McDonald
Sagen Maddalena’s road to the Olympic Games began with a simple newspaper ad she saw while a 13-year-old growing up in California. The local 4-H was looking for youths to join a gun safety program, so Maddalena and a friend responded, to which both their parents approved.
Once a month they met with other kids their age to learn how to shoot rifles and attain gun safety knowledge.
“That was the first time I ever handled a firearm,” Maddalena said. “I wasn’t good at it at all, but I sure loved it. I got to compete and be around other kids, so I kept doing it.”
She eventually got better, and now she’s one of the best in the world.
Maddalena, now a sergeant in the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, qualified for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 in the women’s air rifle in January. She said qualifying for Paris wasn’t any kind of relief knowing that she’d made it, nor was she “overjoyed” by making the team.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “It was good, but now let’s get ready for Paris.”
This won’t be her first Olympic experience as Maddalena competed in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where she finished fifth in the 50-meter three-position rifle. She’ll aim to qualify for Paris in that event again during those U.S. Olympic Team Trials that’ll be held March 17-19 in Fort Moore, Georgia.
Maddalena is second among Americans after two of the first three rounds at trials behind Mary Tucker. Should Maddalena qualify in the 50-meter three positions, she would have to juggle a schedule of practicing for both air rifle and the smallbore, though she sees that as beneficial.
“I found it better to shoot both,” Maddalena said. “We don’t shoot both on the same day during competition, so I can break up my training. I work part of the week for one gun and part of the week for the other gun. You don’t overwork one gun and keep it fresh by shooting both disciplines.”
Maddalena was a young teenager in the mountainous town of Groveland when she first began her shooting journey. She was homeschooled, so regular athletic opportunities at public schools weren’t available at the time for her.
She gained new friendships through shooting rifles while also honing her craft. The more she shot, the better she got. Her world of academia and shooting merged when she enrolled at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Maddalena redshirted her first year before becoming an eight-time All-American with the Nanooks.
In 2014, Fairbanks coach Dan Jordan encouraged Maddalena to try out for the world championships team, so she did. Maddalena qualified for the team and got her first taste of what it meant to compete on that highest level.
“He saw potential that I didn’t see,” Maddalena said of her college coach. “2014 was huge. I had just started shooting air rifle a year and a half before that. I started air rifle because I wanted to compete in college, so that was my first big competition.”
Competing at the world championships launched her into a new stratosphere, even while in college where all she did was sleep, shoot, go to class, eat, shoot some more and then go back to sleep before starting all over again.
Maddalena said shooting at the collegiate level was the first big step in her career when it came to knowing she could become good, or even great.
“Midway through college, I thought I might be able to compete with the best in the country but not the best in the world,” she said. “Then about six months before Tokyo, I’m competitive and I know I can shoot with these guys and win.”
Her finish just shy of the medal podium in Tokyo has fueled the fire to work harder. Now at the Marksmanship Unit in Georgia, she splits her time equally between shooting and working on other things, like mental and physical training.
Maddalena won gold in the air rifle at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, but said her victory isn’t necessarily a precursor to the upcoming Olympic Games.
“It was a great competition and the crowd at that venue was awesome, but I was fortunate to get into the finals because we had some great shooters,” she said.
“The Olympics are more fine-tuned as a competition. Going in there with one match on one day and only a couple of people per country,” she said. “It’s also unique in the sense that you have all the other sports. All the best people in respective sports. It’s pretty spectacular to walk in their presence.”