April 27, 2014

Paschal student is the nation’s No. 1 Army JROTC sporter sharpshooter

Cadet Isela Velazquez is “driven, motivated, honest and full of energy,” instructors say.

From the swish of the curls that fall down her back, it’s hard to believe that the diminuitive Isela Velazquez packs a mean rifle.

But the 16-year-old junior doesn’t brag about it. She lets her gun do the talking.

She outshoots the guys who come in to challenge her, said retired Lt. Col. Terry LeBoeuf, senior Army instructor at Paschal High School.

“Some of them [the guys] hit the carpet,’’ Velazquez said. “I never hit the carpet.”

Velazquez is the nation’s No. 1 Army JROTC sporter sharpshooter — a sporter is a type of air rifle. In late February, she outshot more than 8000 competitors in a national JROTC sporter competition in Alabama.

Paschal has a record of winning rifle teams. But the last time a Paschal High School student clinched an individual competition was in 2008LeBoeuf said.

“She’s one of the best in the nation,’’ LeBoeuf said. “In shooting, what I find is that women are just as competitive as men. There’s no gender breakdown.”

The drive to become a top JROTC sharpshooter is mostly an exercise in mental toughness, Velazquez said.

Every sharpshooter at Paschal begins training in a similar way, Velazquez said. After the cadet learns how to handle the equipment, shooting positions and other details, LeBoeuf, the rifle instructor, shows them videos and provides them with examples of Olympians and other competitors who have excelled at their sport. He also shows the cadets trophies and medals won by their JROTC predecessors, he said.

“If you tell a kid they can do it, they will do it,’’ LeBoeuf said. “That’s what amazing about kids.

“Some of them don’t think they can do it because there’s not enough people out there telling them they can. But once they do it, then they strive to be better.”

Velazquez said she was prompted to do her best after she saw a video of an Olympian who described the key to his success.

“He says everything is mental,’’ she said. “It starts from your breathing. Everything has to do with your breathing, with every single [shooting] position. You have to set your mind to the matter of winning, and knowing that that your next shot is the most important thing to focus on.”

She practices concentration techniques to keep her mind from wandering, she said.

“You have to wipe everything out,’’ she said. “You have to make sure nothing else is on your mind except your current shot and your breathing.

“If I set my mind, if I know and make sure that this target is going to be the best for me, then it will work out just fine.”

All sharpshooters who compete at JROTC events must learn to shoot with their rifles in a prone position and while kneeling and standing. The standing position is the most difficult, LeBoeuf said, and no one who has visited the rifle range at Paschal has been able to shoot a perfect 100 on the 10-ring target, he said.

To demonstrate her skill, Velazquez pulls a 71/2-pound black, compressed -ir rifle out of its casing and gets ready to load it with a high-velocity pellet. She uses a mat on the floor to recline in a prone position and a scope on a stand to better calculate the 10-ring bull’s-eye target, which is the size of a pin.

She keeps an old 10-ring target in her pellet box to remind her of her past success.

“I always set it on my pellet box and I place it right above where the rest of the pellets are,” she said. “And every time I grab the next pellet and look at it, I set my mind to know where my next shot is going to be.

“I took it to nationals and every time I practice here, it’s always there,’’ she said.

When she is ready to shoot while standing, she stands in a “bone position”: rifle tucked at the shoulder and resting at the top of the fist, hips square and leg locked. Her head is straight — no tilting is permitted.

She is a model of stillness and concentration, the instructor said.

“These are very sensitive triggers,’’ LeBoeuf said. “It takes very little pressure to set the trigger off.”

As a senior, Velazquez is the highest-ranking cadet of Paschal’s 250-member JROTC squad, LeBoeuf said.

“She’s driven, motivated, honest, full of energy and people love her. They respect her,’’ LeBoeuf said. “She’s the person that every father could be proud of.”

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

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