Vera Koo admits that after she turned 70, she saw a drop-off in her performance. Age has not stopped this champion action pistol shooter from competing in challenging matches, though. If anything, she trains smarter, not harder.
Vera holds the record for the most wins by a woman at the NRA National Action Pistol Championships, also known as the Bianchi Cup. She holds multiple national and international titles, including eight Bianchi Cup women’s titles and two World titles. She was the first woman to place in the overall top 20 at the 2001 NRA Bianchi Cup.
At 73, she competes not only in the women’s category but also in the senior/super senior category, where she vies for titles as the lone woman going against men. People who don’t know Vera might think she has been in the shooting sports for 50 years. They are surprised to learn she did not start competing in the Bianchi Cup until she was 50, after getting serious about shooting competitions a few years earlier—truly her second act.
In 2018, she saw her memoir, The Most Unlikely Champion, published by Balboa Press. She is revising the book for a second edition and considering authoring another book. The book details her rise to stardom, but also scenes from her “first act”—as a 12-year-old girl emigrating to San Francisco from China, who falls in love, gets married, has a bustling family and works in real estate development—until the loss of an infant child and a devastating life event involving her relationship with her husband—causes her to seek the solace in and challenges of the shooting sports. Training to become a world-class pistol shooter forced her to focus on becoming a professional athlete, which allowed her to heal and recover, and find her faith.
Currently, she is training to compete in the shooting sports’ most prestigious match, the NRA Bianchi Cup, held at the end of May in Columbia, Mo. So how did Vera arrive at this level of shooting, and claimed the women’s championship title again and again? She tells us:
NRA Women: When people ask you what you do, what do you say?
Vera Koo: I usually hesitate, because I realize I do not look the part of a pistol competition shooter. I say I’m in real estate investment management, and if they seem receptive, I’ll tell them that now I am competing in pistol shooting. And I would add that I was part of the United States Action Pistol Shooting team, competing all over the world. That seems to give me credibility. Otherwise, they don’t know if I’m just plinking.
NRA Women: Why did you decide to start shooting?
Vera Koo: If one of my high school friends had told me I would become a world-class pistol shooter, I would have laughed and said she was crazy. I was an art major in college. Now, all these years later, I have been invited to be on the U.S. Women’s Team at the 2018 World Action Pistol Championship.
At a social dinner, when I was in my late 30s, a lady bank manager said, “Oh, I have a shotgun. I can take you to do some shooting.” So, we all showed up.
That day, I realized three out of the four of us didn’t know anything about gun handling or safety. I only made one shot, but that experience gave me a sense of being uncomfortable enough that I asked the range master if there was a place where I could learn gun safety. He told me about a college in Cupertino, California. A year-and-a-half later, I took a firearms safety class taught by police officers. One of the instructors competed in bullseye shooting.
I think women learning how to shoot are like a blank sheet of paper. We have no existing ideas on how to handle or shoot a gun. If the instructor is precise on teaching the correct fundamental skills of handgun shooting, the student will become a good shooter. Ultimately, it’s all about trigger control, proper grip and a lot of practice.
I planned to take one quarter and ended up with seven quarters! I’m a goal-oriented person. There were three women in the first class, and I decided I wanted to be the best woman shooter. I accomplished that in one quarter at the college. Then I set a goal to become the best shooter, regardless of gender, in the class. It seemed unlikely, because most of the guys knew how to shoot already, and they were more comfortable with guns. I worked the next six quarters and repeated three classes in the series, and in the end, I became the best shooter. Then, my instructor told my husband that my accuracy was better than 98 percent of average shooters, but if I wanted to improve my skills, I should go into competition shooting.
NRA Women: What happened at your first match?
Vera Koo: It was in the Bay area in a series of eight matches. The top scorer won a trophy. When I went to register, two ladies tried to warn me. They said, ‘Matches are really cutthroat. We’re not sure you want to do it.’ I said, ‘It’s OK, I’m not here to compete, just to learn.’
I won first place, but I learned a valuable lesson for shooting sports at that club. I had put in extra effort and went to extra practice. On the day of the final match, I had never shot so badly with so much practice, but my opponent shot badly, too. And, I was just a little bit better. The lesson? I have never gone to a match aiming to win, ever. Thinking about winning distracts me from my performance because my mind is thinking about my score or the other competitors.
NRA Women: You are quite an excellent, all-around athlete. Are there any lessons that you’ve learned from other sports that you apply to the shooting sports? I know this list includes skiing, windsurfing and horseback riding.
Vera Koo: I have always tried 100 percent on everything I’ve ever done. I would not be a competitive shooter if I had not married Carlos. He is an outdoor person, and he introduced me to all the sports I have done. Before I met Carlos, I never played any sports. I couldn’t even do one push-up or sit-up. We decided, at first, I would do horseback riding and snow skiing. I was willing to learn, and he was willing to teach. I learned that you must fight the weather while you concentrate on your sports, and these difficulties that I encountered in the sports transferred over to the shooting sports. We also camped and hiked. Those grueling activities helped me endure the hardships of shooting sports.
NRA Women: You have achieved so many successes in your career as a professional competition shooter. Are there some that stand out?
Vera Koo: I am an eight-time Bianchi Cup women’s champion. I believe I have the most wins for women in that competition. I believe we won four women team golds at the NRA World Action Pistol Championships.
NRA Women: How do you train for the Bianchi Cup?
Vera Koo: I always make a point of practicing on location, in Columbia, Mo. I know I’m deficient in certain areas. I’m still working on correcting some bad habits. I have practiced in the rain to the point that I cannot see the rain. It’s vital not to see the rain or feel the wetness, and I pay extra attention to seeing through the rain. A slight distraction will cause me to lose points.
I drill constantly to prevent distractions. Round count matters to me, too. When my round counts are low, my performance is in direct proportion to the count. And at my age, all I’m trying to do is not get injured. An injury now will end my shooting career.
NRA Women: Tell us about your gear.
Vera Koo: The two match guns that I'm preparing for the 2018 World Action Pistol Championship and the Bianchi Cup Championship will be a 38 super caliber, Caspian 1911 open category custom built race gun that has a compensator, extended grip, wings, mover mount, ambidextrous safety, Aimpoint scope, and a shroud. The gun is built by Don Golembieski of Kodiak Precision. The second match gun is a 38 super Springfield 1911 with the same amount of accessories as the gun mentioned above, and it is built by George Huening of GH2 Custom.
NRA Women: How is the Bianchi Cup a different match than other matches?
Vera Koo: On the surface, Bianchi Cup appears deceptively simple. In my experience, the more years I shoot, the harder it gets. I find that very exciting, because the playing field is level for everyone. There are lots of elements in play. You suit up and go on the battlefield, but I like it there. It’s a three-day event, and you must pull yourself together daily. After being beaten down the day before, you must do it again the next day. It is a long period of suffering.
NRA Women: Why do you do it?
Vera Koo: It’s pure joy to finish the Bianchi Cup. I was never there to win a trophy, but it was important for me to see if all my work showed up at the match.
NRA Women: We met about 10 years ago, and since then, have you noticed any changes in the women’s world of shooting?
Vera Koo: Yes, there are more and more women coming into the sport and more juniors. That’s so encouraging. And in the industry, overall, there are more and more women with tons of energy and desire to excel in the sport. Since I asn’t born in the U.S., I was puzzled at the culture and how this country emphasized sports. But, now, since I have been doing sports, I understand that sports develop your work ethic, self-esteem, self-reliance and self-belief. I think every person should be in some sort of sports, especially team sports.
NRA Women: What do you want people to remember about you?
Vera Koo: I’d like them to remember me as a good pistol competitor, someone with strong work ethic, and most of all, I want them to remember me as being kind.