New York American Legion helps air rifle dreams become a reality

For about 30 years, the New York State American Legion Air Rifle Championship has given youth an opportunity to compete shoulder-to-shoulder at a state match with other skilled marksmen, and say, “’I had that opportunity to do my best’,” said Lawrence Behling, Department of New York’s Junior Shooting Sports chairman. “(For me) it’s all about the kids doing their best. And having fun. Not all of them are going to be Olympians, but they’ll have this experience that they can remember.”

The New York State American Legion Air Rifle Championship for 2022 was held Feb. 19-20 inside American Legion Post 787 in Cicero, N.Y. Nine teams and over 60 youth from across the state competed in the three-position match, either in the sporter or precision category, where they fired on a line of 15 electronic targets. Pre-pandemic, Behling said the championship would see about 16 teams and 140 youth. But just having the opportunity to be on the firing line and competing against other air rifle teams “feels like normal again,” said 17-year-old Nina Stalsonberg, a shooter for Central Square Rifle Team sponsored by American Legion Post 915 in Central Square, N.Y.

This is the third time Stalsonberg has competed in the New York State American Legion Air Rifle Championship, one she enjoys for the competition and the family environment.

With air rifle “you learn patience, you learn discipline, you learn respect for the rifle and the team. And the family … we have a family atmosphere, and it’s just fun. I love the sport,” said Stalsonberg, who is co-captain of her Central Square Rifle team. As co-captain, she said, “you lead others. You make sure that they are being safe, they are being respectful. You give them pointers and coach them on the line to help build their performance.”

It's that opportunity to build performance and marksmanship skills that inspired Behling to start the state championship. Prior to its existence, Behling said youth would shoot for their sponsored American Legion post and send in their scores to National Headquarters. There was no competition among athletes outside of their respective post program for them to feel that their marksmanship scores mattered. Now, American Legion post-sponsored air rifle teams are competing against each other, which has resulted in distinguished shooters, teams winning state and national titles, athletes competing in and winning The American Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship in Colorado Springs, Colo., and athletes earning college scholarships for shooting sports.

This success “shows the quality of our program and how we’ve been developing our program,” Behling said. “Not every one of these kids will go to the national (American Legion) competition or be the next Olympic gold medalist, but they all have their dreams, and we’re here to see that they have a chance to make them happen.”

The athletes, coaches and parents at Post 787 for the state championship gave credit to The American Legion Department of New York’s air rifle program making dreams become a reality.

Noah Kalin of Baldwinsville, N.Y., competed on the local American Legion Post 113’s air rifle team prior to joining the U.S. Marines last year. It was because of his American Legion air rifle training and experience of knowing the three shooting positions (standing, kneeling and prone) that Kalin received the highest marksmanship scores in Marine rifle training and is now in Marine Reconnaissance School.

“When I got to the (Marine bootcamp) range and I was doing this stuff in the field, it allowed me to shoot naturally with no problems because of the previous practice I had with The American Legion shooting team. Just knowing the positions, it allowed me to go expert (the highest marksmanship in the Marines),” said Kalin over a phone interview, whose younger brother Aidan competed at the match Saturday for Post 113 and is joining the U.S. Navy following graduation this year.

Seventeen-year-old Claudia Allen competed in The American Legion Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship last July in Colorado and finished in the top 10 for sporter. She shoots for the Binghamton Rifle Club sponsored by American Legion Post 1700 in Binghamton, N.Y., and got involved with the sport alongside her brother when she was 12 because “I really love the competition; it’s peaceful in a way. And shooting 10.9’s is also really fun,” said Claudia, who was at Post 787 with her father Kevin, the scorekeeper for the state match. Kevin shared that Claudia started out shooting a BB-gun and “then we put an air rifle in her hands and never looked back. She started beating her brother and just kept going.”

Tony Gross didn’t know about The American Legion’s air rifle program until his son, Andre, started shooting for the Webster (N.Y.) Junior Marksman Post 942 air rifle team, thanks to encouragement from Behling. After two years of shooting, Andre competed in and won precision for the 2014 American Legion Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship. Andre is now at the University of Akron in Ohio on a shooting sports scholarship, and Tony continues to serve as the Webster Junior Marksman Post 942 coach where he brought four athletes to the New York State American Legion Air Rifle Championship.

“A lot of people don’t know what all The American Legion does for the community. And my family didn’t either … especially for kids,” Tony said. “We had no idea that The American Legion got behind kids so much. (The American Legion’s air rifle program) is teaching youth about safety, and responsibility and discipline. This sport is incredibly safe, and the kids end up studying better, they are more responsible, the discipline is there. There’s zero downside to it.” Watching his athletes better themselves in all disciplines of their life through the sport is what has kept Tony coaching after his son went to college, along with the act of giving back what The American Legion has done for his family through air rifle. “It just feels good to give back. Giving back to the Legion is amazing,” Tony said.

Every team participating in the New York State American Legion Air Rifle Championship is affiliated with an American Legion post. Which is “very important because this is an American Legion program,” Behling said. “It gives posts a sense of pride that they had kids shoot at this championship.” Plus, Behling added that posts are proud to hang air rifle awards at the post home, watch their athletes compete, and even sign up parents who are eligible for membership in the Legion Family. The importance of Legion posts sponsoring air rifle teams for youth to participate in is why Behling travels to American Legion posts in New York and outside the state to help them get the program started. But the “success is from the coaches. I think the coaches are the key ingredient behind the program. It’s their training, wanting them to shoot the right way and the safe way.”

At 87 years old, Central Square Rifle Team coach and Legionnaire Paul Menjik has been coaching for 57 years. His continuation with the sport is because “I enjoy seeing the kids have success,” said Menjik, who brought six athletes to the New York American Legion championship. “It’s worth a whole season to see one kid progress and have a great big smile on their face when they’ve done something well.” Under his coaching, Stalsonberg said that when Menjik talks “we listen because he knows what he’s talking about. And no matter what a kid shoots, no matter what a kid does, he’s always very respectful and he always tries to help us do better.”

It's what the sport of air rifle teaches that translates to doing better – discipline. “Discipline being the biggest one I do have to say, respect for others and their equipment, and courtesy,” Menjik said.

“Marksmanship is a vehicle to teach self-discipline,” said retired U.S. Marine Master Sgt. Thomas Willard, the assistant state chairman for the Department of New York’s Junior Shooting Sports program and a double-distinguished Marine marksman and coach for the Middletown (N.Y.) American Legion Post 151 air rifle team. “It teaches discipline, how to overcome adversity, how to have goal-setting techniques. It teaches you life skills to be a better citizen. It teaches responsibility, it teaches safety, it teaches how to understand rules and regulations and apply them.

“And it’s equal competition between men and women. That’s what I enjoy about it,” added Willard, whose athlete Ashley Mendez competed in the National American Legion air rifle championship in July 2021 for sporter, among many others over the years.   

Discipline is what helps marksmen refocus when they take a bad shot. “I take deep breaths, I recenter myself, and let’s make this next shot,” Stalsonberg said. “Most of the time I end up shooting a 10 the next shot, which is very nice. You need that discipline, so you don’t spiral out of control.”

As a coach, Willard doesn’t want his athletes to focus on the missed shots, but to focus on the successes to continue down that path. “Don’t tell me about the misses,” he said. “Tell me how you shot the 10. Tell me how and what made you successful.”

The New York State American Legion Air Rifle Championship has been held at Post 787, the largest post membership-wise in the state, for the past 10 years. Post Commander Bruce Dauer said having the youth shoot at the post is about fulfilling the Legion’s service to community and youth. “We’re supporting the community, we’re supporting the kids and giving them some direction, we’re giving them some encouragement,” Dauer said. “I think that’s really important. And these kids are amazing.”

Behling is thankful for Post 787 opening its doors to the state championship, noting a window has never been broken by an air rifle shot. And after over 30 years of service to the Legion’s air rifle program, Behling said, “I do it for the kids. It’s not about me. It’s about the kids.”