Shooter Profile—USA Shooting’s Paralympic Rifle Competitor John Joss
There’s a phrase John Joss continually uses to describe himself: A happy-go-lucky kind of guy.
Thing is, he really is. And he means it.
“Because I’m the best ever and I’m super awesome at everything,” he says with a hearty, sarcastic laugh after cracking a few jokes. “I am a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, but there’s nothing on earth that has frustrated me more or made me happier than this sport. It demands all of your attention. You can’t blame it on anyone else—it’s an individual sport. So you’re only as good as you want to be, in a sense, but sometimes you want to be really good, and it’s just not working out for you and it’s really frustrating. And then there are those times you put in all that effort and things go your way, then you love it.”
Jokes aside, Joss’ rise in the prone rifle scene is no laughing matter. The Texas native had, of course, grown up shooting but had never touched an international-style competition rifle until he came to the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit in April 2013. Later that year, he was named USA Shooting’s Paralympic Athlete of the Year. Just a month into his shooting career, Joss, 32, won a Bronze medal at the International Paralympic Committee World Cup in Turkey, and he continued to rack up medals throughout the year.
“I went from the first year where I won just about everything we had—everything I went to, I medaled in everything—and then the next year, I knew the sport and trained harder and I didn’t win hardly anything!” Joss said exasperatedly. “I don’t know if that was just the natural ebb and flow of shooting. Right after the Olympic Games, the best shooters take a break, and shooters you’ve never heard of start making finals and start winning stuff. And then as the competition season really gets into it, the really good players come back and then you don’t see those [new] people anymore. That’s not where I’ll be. I just need to train harder and I’ll get back up there.”
That’s right – he said “Olympic Games.” Joss’ goals were not only to earn Paralympic quotas in R3 (10m Mixed Air Rifle Prone SH1) and R6 (50m Rifle Prone SH1) and a Paralympic Games Team nomination, but to be a competitive prone shooter—period.
“I’m putting a lot of time and energy into it, and I’m getting pretty good at it. I want to be one of those guys who, when you go to a World Cup, people are asking, ‘Is he here? Because I don’t want to shoot against that guy because he’s friggin’ good.’ That’s my goal.”
Though 2014 saw Joss left off several podiums, in 2015 he shot a Day 1 Qualification score at the IPC World Cup in Croatia, in July, that would have put him in most Open finals. This year he also made one of two Open Prone Rifle Finals at the National Championships and earned a Prone Rifle MQS [minimum qualification score], shooting in his first ISSF World Cup in Gabala, Azerbaijan.
“[At Nationals] I earned eighth place for sure there, but I learned a lot, and every final after that I’ll be better. I was extremely nervous because I was shooting with the best in the country—able-bodied, one-legged, two-legged, it didn’t matter—they were the very best and I was up there with them after only two years of shooting prone. Some of these guys have been doing it 15, 18 years, and here I am!
“When I was in Gabala, they looked past the difference saying, ‘I don’t think that thing on the end of his leg is going to help him any,’ and they let me shoot and I didn’t embarrass myself,” Joss added. “I went there with that goal of getting an MQS, even though I shoot a score like that every day—higher than that every day—but it was nerve-wracking for me. Now that I’ve shot at an Open cup and I did well enough, every Cup after that will be better from here. The only difference was that I stepped from Para, which is a difficult sport on its own, to the absolute against the most elite shooters. I know I can shoot with those guys, and I know I can have good scores, it’s just getting enough experience with them in that kind of situation to be able to work on it and get better.”
Joss credits training at the USAMU alongside Olympians “Sergeant Master Blaster” Jason Parker, Michael McPhail and Eric “Uncle Upta” Uptagrafft (as he jokingly refers to them) to his quick growth in the sport, taking something from each of them and applying it to his own match regimen.
From Parker he got the Prone Shuffle, i.e., things don’t feel right until you shrug your shoulders a little bit and settle. “And then once you settle, you’re looking over your sights at the flags, and once you see the condition you want to shoot in, you’ve made a commitment to shoot that shot and you put your head down nice and smooth, do your breathing and take your shot.”
From McPhail he’s learned patience. “Hey, when he shoots, he’s really patient!” Joss said defiantly. “He waits for the wind, waits for differences in lighting, clouds. He doesn’t do dumb stuff when it comes to that.”
He told me that working with Uptagrafft he learned to “position things from him, since our positions are very similar. We shoot the same type of gun and I try to mimic his position, kind of hybrid his and McPhail’s together. I’d just watch, watch where they put their hands, where they’d put their cheeks and try to copy what they’ve got because they were the two best I ever had dealings with.
“These fine adjustments in position are things only someone who has been doing it 15 years can tell you how to do. They’ve really helped me out with so many pointers. Heck, just about anyone I’ve come in contact with has helped me in some fashion.”
“John is an extremely talented athlete,” said Parker. “He’s one of the unique shooters that can pick up any gun and shoot it well. His defining characteristic as an athlete is his intense will to succeed at whatever he is doing. When you combine that with his carefree sense of humor, you end up with a great teammate and a true champion. It is especially fun to watch him train finals with Mike and Eric. He’s never afraid to express his prediction of beating them before a final, and he always makes sure they know he beat them when he wins.”
Joss was recruited into the then newly formed Paralympic section in USAMU in 2013, when he was running the track at Fort Benning for physical therapy. Joss lost a portion of his lower right leg as a result of injuries suffered when his vehicle was caught in an ambush during combat in Iraq. He wasn’t looking to switch jobs within the Army at the time he was recruited to USAMU—he was previously instructing other soldiers to shoot mortar guns—but when orders would have required him to move, he followed up with the section recruiter to arrange a tryout.
“He said, ‘We’ll see how you shoot and see what kind of person you are,’ and, needless to say, I guess I passed both of those criteria,” Joss said proudly. “I was a soldier with no elite shooting experience. I was good marksman, but I didn’t have any college shooting or anything like that.”
Just two years later, Joss earned a Paralympic quota when he won Silver in R6 at the IPC World Cup in Sydney, Australia, in September. Earning one in both disciplines would make him “one happy son of a gun,” and he is focused on building his experience to get back on top of those podiums.
“I’m just a confident dude, that’s just how I was raised. Just believe in yourself,” Joss said matter-of-factly. ”If you believe in yourself, everyone else is going to as well. It’s not that anyone can’t beat me—I just need to stop beating myself and doing dumb things. I’ve got a really good shooting gun, I’ve got some of the best shooters on planet earth shooting around me all the time, I’ve got the training environment—basically, the only thing that’s kept me from destroying everyone is that I’ve been mentally weak. That comes with time and that comes with experience, but it’s getting better every day. You have to work on it every day. You can be the best damn shooter all day long, but when they put you in a match and they say, ‘Record fire, go,’ it all changes. Just working on those experiences and taking those experiences from Gabala and Nationals and putting them in my head like, ‘Hey man, you shot with the best in the world, and you didn’t look bad—you beat 60 percent of them—let’s shoot against these guys and beat them too.’”